TIME Music

Meet Daya, the Teen Pop Sensation Who Isn’t Satisfied to ‘Sit Still, Look Pretty’

"I don’t want to be put on this pedestal or bowed down to or anything like that"

Daya is just 17, but the burgeoning pop vocalist has already hit us with three chart-topping songs, is launching a nationwide solo tour and will drop her first full-length album, Sit Still, Look Pretty, on Friday. Not to mention that she’s spent the last year performing around the country, hot on the heels of her popular collaboration with dance duo The Chainsmokers and the success of the platinum single “Hide Away” (all while finishing up senior year of high school and making it to prom, of course).

But Pittsburgh-born Daya, who’s skipping college (for now) to focus on music, is eager to make it clear that she’s no glossy, manicured pop starlet. She’s a singer with a message of self-empowerment who’s committed to staying grounded—even if that sometimes requires the oversight of her mom. “I feel like I’ve been living in a dream for the past year,” Daya says, “and I’m going to wake up tomorrow and have to go to school or college like all my friends are.

TIME sat down with Daya to hear about the ups and downs of tackling a major pop dream without losing control.

TIME: Messaging seems to be important to you—many of your songs are about female empowerment. How did you end up moving in that direction?

I grew up with four sisters—four very talented and intelligent sisters—and two parents that were very supportive of whatever we wanted to do. So I took that message, and wanted to tell it to my younger audience, especially girls who feel like they’re put into a box or a mold by society saying you have to look or act a certain way to please people. But really, girls can do anything that guys can.

Have you faced any challenges in the industry that have made you want to double down on that message?

Yeah! It’s frustrating when, at some points, people would tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t look the part,’ or ‘You need to wear makeup for this interview or this thing or whatever.’ I will wear makeup because I want to look good for myself, but it’s not to please other people. It’s not so I fit in with the pretty girls or to impress guys. People should be allowed to roll out of bed and and go to an interview; people shouldn’t be telling you you can’t curse because it’s not ladylike. I don’t believe in those standards.

You started playing piano at about three, and singing at 10. When did you pivot to pop?

I was taking classical piano, guitar, and ukulele for a while. But then I found my voice around age 10, and that’s how I got started singing and accompanying myself on the piano. Pop is always something that I’ve loved, so that’s what I started with. The synth world and working with producers and collaborators was new to me, but ultimately it’s been what I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

Did you come from a musical family?

No! Both of my parents are engineers. I had a family band going for a second with my four sisters, but it didn’t last very long.

Daya isn’t your real name. Is there a back story?

Daya is a translation in Hindi of my real name, Grace. But it’s not just some random translation, because my grandpa immigrated here from New Delhi, India; I’m a quarter Indian.

Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?

Amy Winehouse is a huge one vocally, from really early on. Her sound was just so raw and authentic and unique, and I love that and wanted to incorporate that in my music. I also listen to a lot of Alanis Morissette, Dido.

Is there anyone you’d like to work with?

I would love to collaborate with Chance the Rapper. I love his lyrics and his sound and everything.

All of this has been happening while you were still in high school. Did you miss out on anything? Were your parents worried?

I was getting a little FOMO, to be honest. Especially when college started this year, because it’s something that everyone does and everyone has fun with. It was hard for me to juggle school and music during my senior year last year; I had to take it on the road with me. But luckily, I graduated on time. I may go back to school in the future; who knows? But for now I feel content doing this.

The line between public and private life can be challenging for pop stars to walk, too; you’re expected to share so much.

The fact that everything that I do and everything I say is now watched by millions of people was a scary thought for me at first, and it was kind of daunting. I wasn’t used to being that vulnerable. But now I’ve grown more accustomed to it. It just makes me want to be more who I am. People are going to come at me either way with criticisms, so it’s just important for me to stay true to myself.

What grounds you?

My family. My mom will come on the round with me and be super rough on me—but in a good way.

Like a bedtime?

Yeah, she’ll give me a curfew, crack down a little bit, which is—you know, I hate it, as a teenager, but it’s good. She has my back, and she has my best interests in mind, so I know it’s going to be useful in the long run.

Is there something you think sets you apart, as an artist?

My main thing is, I just want to be honest with my audience. I want to have a friendship relationship with them. I don’t want to be put on this pedestal or bowed down to or anything like that. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, we all go through things, and I want to be able to say that through my lyrics and have people relate to that as well.

You’ve met President Obama and Michelle Obama—who else is on your list?

They were amazing. They were so casual, too. It would be cool to eventually meet Rihanna. And Sia! She’s an idol of mine.

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