alayna: A New Zeal for New York

alayna, an electronica R&B artist from New Zealand, started out by singing with her father. She eventually picked up the guitar and experimented with her own sound. Moving to Brooklyn for a year, she felt inspired by the magnetic environment. After years of struggling with self-doubt and identity, her EP caught the attention of the label 20XX. Now 24, alayna's debut single 'Falling Autumn' has surpassed 4 million streams with her other tracks right behind it. 

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Nirvana

It’s too late to run away from it all,

It’s too late to get away from it all

The nostalgic verse fluttered through her headphones. The smooth riffs and soft percussion stirred her mind in synch with the melody. She had never heard a voice harness so much power yet hold so hauntingly steady. The song ‘Nirvana’ by Sam Smith opened her eyes to a new level of control. “I remember playing it on repeat for two days straight and thinking I need to write a song like this,” says alayna. “He made me feel something.”

Alayna Powley, who goes by just alayna, would record her own cover of ‘Nirvana’ and try to capture the way Smith wields his voice as an instrument. Her rendition reached over two hundred thousand eyes on YouTube. But before alayna ever stood behind the mic, she sang for her father. “When I was 6, I hummed a song to my Dad,” she says. “He told me I didn’t have a bad voice.”

As a kid, alayna learned to sing while her father strummed the guitar. They recorded a CD together for her grandparents in the home studio. Soon after, alayna’s father taught her basic chords and she picked up the instrument quickly. They would play friends’ weddings and family gatherings side by side. “My Dad was always positive about my passions even when I was negative to myself,” she says. “He always told me to keep going long before I fell in love with music.”

MAINZ

 photo cred: Jack McKain

photo cred: Jack McKain

Stepping into high school, alayna struggled to find her identity. She wanted to be strong but didn’t know what that meant. Nothing felt right. “I tried to do everything and make everyone happy,” she says. “When I graduated, I had no idea who I actually was.” alayna sang throughout high school but focused little on the fundamentals. She remembers the beauty of having no training in the proper vocal techniques. “You can hear it in younger kids,” she says. “They’re fearless when they sing.” Under limited guidance, alayna started to experiment with recording her own vocals. “I wish I could go back to those days and do more when I had no idea,” she says. “Once you study music, it changes everything.” Her journey of studying music began at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ). At university, alayna’s confidence fell. She smacked into walls shattering her sense of self. “I thought I sucked,” she admits, “but I pushed to a point where I didn’t want to do anything else.” She worked on a demo and fought to release her first single. A local label showed interest, but nothing transpired. “I thought about recording my first official single for five years until it happened,” says alayna. “When nobody reached out I went back to work.”

Finding Her Groove

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Moving back to her hometown of Rotorua after graduation, alayna realized she needed to leave New Zealand to grow as an artist. In the fall of 2016, she moved to Brooklyn, NY for one year. Brooklyn felt like home in a way that New Zealand never did. Working at a clam shack, alayna wrote on her own time. “I’d go for a walk, sit at cafes, and write for a few hours,” says alayna. “I felt alone, but everyone else was alone too, so I’d feel it a bit less.” She listened to stories from strangers and absorbed the atmosphere stained by ambition. When the stress brimmed, alayna carved out a niche of local hangouts to recharge. She escaped the bustle at a bar called Groove in Greenwich. “That became my spot,” she says. “I had far too many Long Island Iced Teas.”

After a few months, the label 20XX Entertainment reached out to alayna about a five track EP that she had released. Chad Hillard, the label head, asked her for the opportunity to reproduce the EP. alayna hesitated. She didn’t want to compromise the heart of her music. Then, Chad convinced alayna to let the artist Astronomyy reproduce her song ‘Falling Autumn.’ “I sent the stems to Aaron [Astronomyy] and he sent me back his version a few days later,” says alayna. “It had the same vibe but was 100x better. I understood how someone could improve the song without changing the core.” For alayna, the joy lies in the process. “Working on ‘Falling Autumn,’ I realized there was no end goal, no satisfaction around the corner,” she says. “The highs would come from the stepping stones.”

With an overflowing bank of lyrical ideas, she pieces together each song uniquely. alayna sings along with the guitar or piano and starts building if anything sticks. Taking her ideas from the bedroom to the stage, she embraced the soul, R&B style. Singing live, alayna channels the pain sparked by soul music. R&B sits in a feeling, striking the mood. “I realized I could make people feel with my voice,” she says, “and then I started to feel more deeply.”

Poet In The Sky

Much of alayna’s feelings stem from the pain of leaving New Zealand for Brooklyn. “For three months, I felt physically sick at the realization that so much was going to change,” she says. She left a long-term relationship and said goodbye to her family. “I knew everything would be different, but that’s what I wanted, a smack in the face.”

On top of trekking away from home, alayna also lost her grandmother late last year. It happened quickly. She suffered from an aggressive terminal cancer. “Maybe I should have talked to her more, all these things I could have asked her,” says alayna. “Her death opened my eyes to the reality of mortality.”

In the midst of pain, alayna explored other artists to heal and stumble upon inspiration. She heard ‘Unravel Me’ sang by Sabrina Claudio and produced by Stint. “I remember thinking this production is fucking insane,” says alayna. “The balance of electronic elements and organic instruments was the perfect mix, not leaning too much towards one side or the other.” She called her label the next day to reach out to the Canadian producer. Stint has produced for Demi Lovato, Carly Rae Jepsen, and was nominated for a Grammy for his work Gallant. Soon after, alayna flew out to LA to meet Stint. She played him a few songs. They shared each other’s stories. “He understood right away how I wanted the song to feel.”

Bliss

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That song, ‘Bliss,’ would go on to surpass 800 thousand streams in three months. alayna applied to NZ On Air, a platform that invests in audio and visual content reflective of New Zealand culture, to fund the music video for ‘Bliss.’ After hearing about the project, NZ On Air agreed to finance the video the weekend before she flew back to New Zealand. Her team had two days to finish shooting in Greenwich Village. The director, Patrick Golan, used traditional film. “I had no idea what the video looked like until the final stages,” says alayna. The video’s male love interest, Eli, acts professionally. alayna had not acted before. “All of those parts where I’m talking, I’m really just insulting him,” she laughs. Despite some initial awkwardness, alayna and Eli embodied a couple abounding with intimacy but drowning in time. “It’s about loving someone so much it hurts,” she says, “but knowing one day it will end.”

Whether shooting a music video or writing a melody, insecurities can creep into an artist’s mind. Moments of greatness signify small flecks in the creative process. “90 percent of the time you doubt yourself,” says alayna. “You live for the 10 percent of the time you have a good writing session and nail a song.” The process deepens alayna’s connection to her listeners and to herself. She transforms feelings into words as a way to understand. “As I discover the world more, I understand less,” she says. “I find some form of validation in music that I can’t find anywhere else.”


Listen to 'Bliss' by alayna below:

Watch the official music video for 'Bliss' below: