Born and raised in Houston, Texas, singer-songwriter Peyton grew up surrounded by music. A trained vocalist and violinist, she started immersing herself in music at a young age through her family, including her late grandmother, Theola Booker, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer who once taught Beyoncé to play piano. After a series of independent releases in the mid-2010s, Peyton signed a deal with Stones Throw and issued her label debut, 2019’s Reach Out EP, which was followed by a string of one-off singles the following year, including the Steve Lacy collaboration ‘Verbs’. Her first proper album, PSA, whose cover artwork recalls that of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One, dropped earlier this month. Peyton began writing the songs on the LP in 2018 before working with several producers including Biako, Jay Anthony, Vicky Farewell, Julia Lewis and Keys & Krates, and the result is a progressive R&B album as playful as it is dreamy, as carefree as it is refined. That it ends with a cover of ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is entirely fitting: it’s a wonderful collection of songs buyoed by a sense of youthful optimism and unbridled creativity.
We caught up with Peyton for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the inspirations behind her new album PSA, and more.
Do you mind sharing some of your earliest musical memories?
My earliest memory of music is my dad rocking me to sleep playing ‘Dragonfly Summer’ by Michael Franks. I also can recall being in my mom’s hometown, Liberty, Texas, and being at my grandpa’s house smelling detergent from the washing machine, and while he’s cleaning hearing ‘Call My Name’ by Prince playing. And listening to Destiny Fulfilled by Destiny’s Child in the car with my mom after school or late at night on a late drive.
What were your first attempts at songwriting and performing like?
I was very little, and I would just always perform my songs for my grandma. [laughs] She taught me how to be a well-rounded individual, teaching me work ethic, how to be humble. She was a musician herself, so I got to watch her firsthand. Because I was her travel buddy, I would go with her to gigs and got to watch her in those settings, and she would tell me the do’s and don’ts in certain settings. She didn’t always tell me certain things; it’s just how she carried herself and I saw people respond to that. And of course, as a kid, I thought, “Oh, well, that’s the only way to be,” you know?
Are there any specific memories that come to mind of travelling with her?
She worked in different settings – church, education, theatre, all sorts of things, and she travelled a lot. I remember – well, it was one instance where I went with her to a church that she was either being honoured at or playing with the choir, and they were having some sort of celebration. And we were all waiting in line to get refreshments, and I remember just being a kid, thinking, “Oh, I’m a kid, so forget all these adults, I’m going to get whatever I want first.” [laughs] And she’s like, “No, this is not your church, we’re all the same, so you need to wait just like everyone else.” Those are definitely humbling teaching moments.
Also, she got me my first gig, playing my violin at some sort of event. And, you know, teaching me how to set my rate and giving my best for what I’m paid for. [laughs] Just continuing to teach me good work ethic.
So much of your new album draws on your experiences from young adulthood. Were you consciously reflecting back on a certain time, or was it something that just came naturally?
It was more so a case where I was creating and I began to understand what I was doing. [laughs] Usually when I make any body of work, I’m not like, “Okay, I’m gonna make an album about this and it’s gonna be like this.” My creative process doesn’t really work like that because that can be very limiting and can feel forced. So, I was just creating things and I began to see a pattern and just continued to build from there.
The general themes that I was saying was that, for one – not really a theme, but the first two songs I made for the project was ‘It’s Been So Long’ and ‘Ppl Say’, and I’m like, “These songs sound very big, so I want to create other songs that fit this mould and sound just as big.” And then from there, that’s when I started kind of curating the album, but even then, I still just go with the flow of things. And if I made something and I’m like, “Oh, this is not really fitting,” then I would just be like, “Oh, it’s for something else.” But yeah, I really took my time with this. The themes that I came to notice are, you know, some sort playfulness; there’s a lot of playfulness when it comes to what I’m talking about and how I present it. And there are a lot of musical motifs, which I also think is pretty playful. The whole thing really plays on my childlike nature. [laughs]
I was wondering how much of that was you being nostalgic about the way you were in the past, and how much is just a reflection of your personality now.
Yeah, that’s just how I am. [laughs] Obviously I’m an adult, but I do hold on to my childlike nature in a sense. When it comes to the arts and creativity and the beauty of life, I’m definitely impressionable.
In what way?
I’m just ready to take things all. I just like the simplicity in a lot of things and see the beauty and a lot of things that maybe can be taken for granted as you get older.
You mentioned ‘It’s Been So Long’, and that’s one of my favourites on the record. To the extent that you’re comfortable talking about this, what kind of headspace were you in when you were writing that song specifically?
It was one of those things where I was just freestyling the lyrics and they just came so easily, and then I started to understand the direction of where I was going. I had always wanted to write a song about the acceptance and realization of losing a loved one. So it was cool to finally have the words to say, and it just kind of came so easily and just flowed out of me. And that’s what I liked about a lot of the songs on this album, is that they just came so easy to me when it comes to the lyrics and how I felt, because they were just my true feelings. I have lost some really important loved ones, and I just thought, you know, everyone has experienced losing someone so dear to them and wanting to tell them something they feel like they can’t tell them, because they’re not here physically. I think it’s important to not feel alone in that because when you lose someone so special, you can feel a bit lost.
The production on the album is so dreamy and lush. Were you worried about maintaining a balance between the sound of the album and your vocal presence?
Well, I just had a feeling it would all work out. [laughs] And I had a lot of great musicians who made sure that there was a lot of balance, so I didn’t have to think about that too hard. Especially having Itai Shapira as the executive producer, he definitely helped with that balance. He is just so talented and very brilliant.
How did that collaboration come about?
Me and Itai connected at the beginning of 2019, and I thought it was so cool that he reached out to my management and he was just saying he really wanted me to work in his studio whenever I was in Los Angeles. He’s currently at Revival Studio – it’s known for being owned by one of the members of Earth, Wind & Fire. We ended up making time, I scheduled some time to come to Los Angeles, and before we got together I was telling him, you know, I’m really interested in making things sound like this or are reminiscent of this and that. When I was telling him my general idea of what I wanted, he just completely elevated what I was thinking to another level, which was really awesome. And from there, I think we just really clicked when we met.
What kind of conversations did you have in terms of what you wanted to achieve?
I was thinking of, like, I love the dreaminess that the Isley Brothers brought. And I really wanted to showcase my vocal range, so I was thinking of artists that really showcase their vocal range and things that are fitting for them. My range goes pretty high, so, you know, thinking of Minnie Ruperton and Mariah Carey and Bilal. Just so many different artists, just sending him music every day, like, “What do you think about this? I want to play on this element, I like the drums for this, I love the synths on this song.” Just really trying to get him to get to know who I am as a music lover period to even begin to create.
Each song in the album seems to focus on a very specific emotion, but it still feels like a very cohesive experience. In your mind, what is it that connects the songs, lyrically and musically?
Well, I think overall it’s very dreamy. It’s like being in a dream or a state of wonder and deep thought, or just being in your own little bubble.
Which relates to what you said about the childlike nature of it.
Yeah, that’s exactly what I was gonna say. It definitely connects with that too. I feel like as being an adult, you definitely kind of censor yourself – not like I was going crazy with the things I would say, but I was just very free. And I think kids are like that too.
Why did you decide to end the album with a cover of ‘Pure Imagination’?
It’s a song that I’ve always been moved by since I was young. It would just bring me to tears, honestly. The lyrics are so simplistic and so real, and with my own songwriting, I try to be as simplistic as possible but still have a meaningful message behind it all. So that was something that represented how I approach things as an artist myself. And also, the message rings true to my heart – you know, you can create a beautiful life, a beautiful path for yourself, and you can change the world, you’re capable of moving others and making things move in your life. You just have to believe and see all of the possibilities. And then also, that song is from Willy Wonka, so that also goes along with the theme of childlike nature and just holding on to that.
Is that something that drives you personally and creatively, that message?
Yeah, definitely. That you can make a difference with the gifts that you were blessed with, and even if you feel like maybe it’s not possible, you just have to do it. Anything you want, just do it.
What are your own dreams and ambitions for the future?
I want to continue to reach others and be able to see the world and connect with so many different people and help others the best I can as I move forward in life. You know, I hope to just connect with many people who can relate to me and I can relate to them and meet other like-minded musicians and artists and just people in general. I want my music to just reach as many people as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Peyton’s PSA is out now via Stones Throw.