Polly A made the decision to leave home. Like any human being looking to create a better life or follow that gut-tugging dream, the singer packed her bags and made a move into a new world of possibilities. That world of opportunity was the East coast mecca, New York City. But packing her bags and booking a one way ticket from the Midwestern city of Milwaukee to the “Concrete Jungle” wasn’t the route she wanted to take. Born Meleni Smith and fresh out of high school, the then matured teen applied to numerous universities and landed an acceptance letter from the Uptown-planted ivy league, Columbia University.
From that point on, Polly hit the ground running. She would record music and work on her artistry in between class, perform in underground train cars and share her vocal gift with anyone willing to listen. “I literally started selling the demo I recorded for class in Times Square,” she laughs. “I’d sing on the train. It was that story of a real New York artist struggling to have anyone listen!”
She would soon catch the ears of Columbia Records and land a record deal. After she waited for the solo debut that never came and parted ways with the music company, the songwriter took matters into her own hand and continued to work on her music making craft. She would eventually place songs on projects by the likes of Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez, then co-wrote J. Cole’s gold-certified record “Crooked Smile.” Although these accomplishments were career milestones, the “Nature” singer wanted to step out and pursue her solo career. “I love songwriting, but I don’t want to do it forever,” she admits. And focusing on self is just want she has set out to do.
With a new label home at Adam Levine’s 222 Records and her first single and EP title track, “Ghetto Gold Dream,” out for the world to hear, Smith is ready to drop a new EP. VIBE had the chance to chat with the Los Angeles-based artist in the Toyota Music Den at Lollapalooza 2016 to talk about her challenging journey, music accomplishments and more.
VIBE: Who is Polly A and what does she stand for?
Polly A: Polly A sort of evolved. It’s kind of like a Phoenix rising. You get your heart broken enough times and then you realize it and redefine what love means to you. Polly A is a love movement. It’s short for “polyamorous,” but not in the multiple sex partners kind of way. People who are familiar with that word tend to make it about that, but for me it’s a love movement. I love everyone and I’ve redefined what society tells you that love is. I feel like a lot of people put themselves through traumatic experiences because they’re looking for this one thing not realizing that love is everywhere and love can be found in all of us. We are all a reflection of each other.
So what’s the difference between Meleni (your birth name) and Polly?
Meleni was a lot more afraid of success, failure, heartbreak and the future. Polly A abandoned all fear and she embraced the moment and embraced all things that are. She realizes that all of these experiences make her who she is and they are all necessary so that she can become the person she has envisioned herself to become.
You sing from a very deep, soulful place. When would you say that seed of soul was planted?
I’ve always considered myself to be a soul singer. All my heroes, all my music master teachers are soul singers. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, and Prince were all my teachers. Soul music has always been a huge part of my life. I didn’t really grow up with soul music around me. My mom is Jamaican, so she really didn’t play that as much. But in my teenage years, I literally studied it on my own. I dove in and soul music is what spoke to me. It was the foundation for the path that I was going to go on musically.
You went to college at a prestigious. From there, you tried to get into the music game whichever way you could. How did you stay motivated? What gave you the fuel to continue going?
It was a couple of things. The main one being that you feel like this is the only thing that you know how to do really well and there is no second choice because this is the only thing that gets me out of bed every morning. If I’m sad, I become happy and my heart literally moves so me and music will always have a strong connection. I lost my voice for six months. I had a crazy vocal chord disorder that is a very rare situation. I couldn’t sing or speak for six months. It’s also a condition where you don’t know if you’re going to get your voice back.
What’s the name of the condition?
It’s called vocal chord paralysis (if you don’t get it back) and vocal chord paresis (if you do get it back). The catch is they can’t diagnose which one it is until you get your voice back. There’s no cure, so it’s just like a waiting game while you’re going through it and it was the biggest test that I’ve ever gone through in life. During those six months, I realized that this is my calling. I heard my voice for the first time (not literally) and I never gave myself enough credit for having a good singing voice. I would say that I was a good writer, but I sing alright. I also said to myself, ‘Wow, this is God’s way of showing me myself.’ Seeing that I’m taking this for granted and recognizing that for the first time made understand the gift that I have. I realized that there’s so many people who say that they don’t have the ability to sing and they say that they want to sing but their voice isn’t allowing them to. Throughout my whole life, I could sing. I used to think that anybody could sing. But when I didn’t have my voice I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can sing!’ It was God yelling at me and telling me, ‘Don’t ever tell me that it isn’t good enough. Don’t ever tell me that you don’t want to do this. I chose you to do this.’
You kept the faith going…
I kept the faith. I kept the faith. That moment was the turning point. I said I don’t care if I’m doing wedding gigs, whatever place my voice takes me, I’m going to take that opportunity because I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be sharing this voice with everyone.
You’ve worked behind the scenes as a songwriter for the likes of Alicia Keys, J. Cole and more. Are you still doing that?
Oh yeah for sure! I know a lot of people try to separate the two. It’s either you’re a singer or a songwriter, but most of us are both. We are constantly creating and constantly in the studio. That’s where we thrive. A lot of it is just the homies. I have a lot of artists friends who are doing their thing too and putting out albums independently. It just ends up being a kickback more than just work, so that’s where I hangout. Some people go to the clubs, but I hang out at the studio and create.
If you could choose three artists to work in the studio with, who would they be?
Frank Ocean, because he is so incredible and I’m inspired by him. Andre 3000. And she’s not really making music like that anymore, but I love Fiona Apple. She’s one of my inspirations as a songwriter.
Let’s talk about the inspiration behind your single, “Ghetto Gold Dream.”
When I went to the studio, I was frustrated. It was really just a reaction to feeling sideswiped by people who you thought were genuine and it turns out their not. And then the phrase “Ghetto Gold Dream” just came to me. It’s a symbol of, I’m not trying to drop 2,000 dollars but I’m still trying to look fly. I can be fly without being rich. I can be royalty without having the bank account of a royal person. It’s a song about triumph. Throughout all of these distractions, people hating on you and thinking your not going to go anywhere, because of where you come from. Even your own inner hater, telling you stuff, it’s like I’m going to do this. I’m going to live the life that I envisioned and I don’t care who has an opinion about it. As long as this is in my head, I can achieve it. It sounds cliché but it all starts in your head. The song is a testament to that whole idea.
Describe your music in three words.
Honest, Mash-Up, and Pure.
So what’s next for you? Will we get a new album?
The album is pretty much done. The EP will be coming out at the end of the month. The album and EP will be called GGD because its a metaphor for my whole journey and the video just came out a week ago and we just got our firsr offer for a tour. Things are moving and people are getting acquainted with the music day by day. As long as I’m in the race.
Random, what makes you happy?
I make myself happy. (Laughs) I say that to say that happiness is internal, not external. If you are looking for happiness externally, then you’ve already messed up. I think everyday I wake up I thank God for the small mercies. I thank God that I have two arms that work, my lungs work and my heart works. It grounds me and I remind myself that being alive is a blessing.
Polly A’s EP Ghetto Gold Dream is set to drop on Friday, August 26. In the meantime, stream her latest Gabe Lambirth-produced single, “Fire Fallin,” a soulful ballad about a special love. Visit Iampollya.com for more.