by Karissa Perry
Photography by James Huang
Between writing original music, collaborating with rappers and filming music videos, Una Healey, better known as Una Angel, develops her passion for songwriting, while being a full-time Boston University student. This Public Relations major, originally from Durham, North Carolina, has already released a full EP since coming to college. With her soulful vocals and expertise in piano, Una’s music is a unique mesh of genres including jazz, R&B and even some hip-hop and rap. Upon the release of her new EP titled Put Me On, the Buzz caught up with Una to get the details on her development and experience as a songwriter.
The Buzz: How did you get into songwriting?
Healy: So I’ve been playing piano since I was about six years old and I had been singing even before that. I’ve been singing pretty much my whole life and when I turned 12 or 13, I started to—I had been playing piano for a few years—I started to explore. When I wasn’t practicing off the page I would play random chords and see what came out and as I started doing that, I would sing vocal lines over whatever I was writing and over time, that turned into, “Wow I can actually write a completed song,” and I was never formally trained in improvisation or chord names so I would write out the chords by letter. Once I started writing songs, I realized that—and I don’t think I did it intentionally— I created the niche or genre that I wanted to produce.
You experiment with a lot of genres. Do you have a favorite?
I don’t want to pick one because I think they are all very interconnected. I think a lot of hip hop today is very much influenced by R&B and vice versa and so, for me, I don’t consider myself a hip hop artist but more of an R&B singer with some jazz and pop influences who is versatile, and I like to collaborate with rappers so that I can be a part of hip hop, kind of like today. I don’t want to box myself in at this stage especially, but even down the road, I don’t want to get boxed in. I do expect that when I get to the point where I have a manager or a label, they would want me to narrow it at least for a project to get a cohesive sound but even now, my sound is cohesive in the sense that you can listen to my EP through and it’s not disjointed.
Who are some of your musical influences?
So many. I grew up with a lot of classic jazz and I feel like a lot of what I do comes back to that. So those singers would be Ella Fitzgerald [and] Diana Krall. I think the soul element of these singers and how they’re not produced and their recording went straight to the tape and there wasn’t auto-tune or any of that, and so growing up on that, those are always the people I go back to. But I would say that my biggest influences are probably Alicia Keys [and] Miguel, because he’s very much influenced by Prince and those two kind of go hand in hand, but one’s of a much younger generation. I do listen to a lot of R&B as well and so I would even say artists such as Bryson Tiller. Even though they’re male artists, I’ve been surprised at the number of male artists I’ve been inspired by because, a lot of times they’ll deal with content from a male perspective about love and relationships and they don’t take it from a Taylor Swift perspective. There’s all of this complexity. And I want to do that but I want to do that from a female perspective.
How do you balance everything?
Sure, so I’m pursuing a degree in Public Relations and in a way that’s very helpful because branding and promotion and it’s very much tied into marketing these days. The way that I balance it honestly is sometimes you have to make sacrifices. I will say that there have been Friday, Saturday nights during the week I have a lot to do and I realize that I need to spend a good four to five hours on my music and so I’ll give up a night. Say that I would otherwise go out, so that I can compose music or rehearse whatever I need to do. But in addition to that, I think the balancing kind of occurs naturally because I just have to do music, like I can’t not do it. So I just find ways to make time for it.
Break down your songwriting process.
It depends on the song. Sometimes, even the lyrics will come first and I find that more and more as I’m in school and I can’t just go to the keys at my house. I’ll be on the T and there’ll be a lyric hook or between classes I will come up with a melody and then I’ll put those two together. From that, I’ll go to the keys, and I’ll put a chord progression. But, at the same time, sometimes I’ll finally get a chance to sit at the keys and I’ll get a chord progression so the order is very flexible. I’m not one of those people—and I’m sure there are some writers—who have a very methodical way of doing things. My only rule for myself is not to write songs that are seven to eight minutes. They have to kind of fit the structure of a pop song.
What’s your bigger plan? Let’s start with a few months from now, where do you see yourself?
Yeah, so a few months from now, I do plan on releasing another EP. My hope is that I can release it over winter break or that I can record while I’m in Durham, which is the city that I’m from, over winter break and then come back and release it when I return, kind of like what I did for this project. That way I’m doing a summer EP, and then a winter EP, fall, spring. In a few months, that is my main goal. I also have quite a few singles that you can look forward to that I should be releasing in the next few weeks. We’re kind of working right now on how to release them so that they don’t just pop out of nowhere but they’re still going to be like surprise singles, which is a lot of fun. Many of them are collaborations with rappers.
What’s the process like of releasing an album?
So I’ve worked a lot with the music business team—truly—everyone provided a lot of guidance and advice, which I couldn’t have done without. Just given that neither of my parents have any experience in the music industry. I personally have read a few music business books but they never can apply anything to you as an individual. So we kind of worked on sharing ideas for how to release it, have a rollout plan, and create a bit of buzz around it and, I think, I’m really happy at how it all went and I look forward to adjusting that process as I release more music. And as that happens, I think I’ll get more listeners and the following will continue to build.
How does the atmosphere change when you’re performing as compared to in the studio or by yourself?
Yeah—I think, what I love about it and what occurred this summer because I performed a lot back home, a lot of open mic nights where I was able to do short sets and I was finally able to culminate my own show at the end of this summer. And there’s nothing better than getting an entire bar of noisy people to shut up and kind of put their drink down and listen. And I love that feeling, just getting everyone to fall silent, having everyone’s attention. That’s the best feeling because what I want, like what I want from my performances, is for people to feel. I want them to feel it and I want them to be able to not only vibe with the music, but connect with it and feel some kind of emotion. And I think the only way to really do that is to get them there in that moment with you. And I think those are some of the best concerts that I’ve ever attended. I haven’t been thinking about “Oh, what am I going to do after the concert?” You’re just in the moment and you can create that experience without all of those flashy lights. You just need to take command of that space, but do it in a way that you’re also inviting the audience.
Is the music scene different from North Carolina to Boston?
It’s very different. In North Carolina as a whole, there’s a lot of blue grass and “hippie music” in the more rural areas. Now where I’m from is urban, it’s a tiny urban pocket, so that means that we have hip hop and R&B. And we actually have more music festivals now bringing in all these neo-soul, jazz artists, which I’m really excited about. That’s a niche that I kind of fit in so that feels good. In Boston, the difference is that Berklee’s here and—which I think is great—that only provides advantages because you kind of see how other people are doing things. There are other venues. It’s just a bigger city. I think also there’s a better audience, when you’re thinking about the audience I want to target, definitely the people around our age and up. That said, I think, in my city, if you go to any bar you’re going to get thirty and up and you’re going to miss the college kids.
Does your environment and the people around you influence your music?
I think the number one thing that inspires my songs are relationships and the emotions that come out of them. I’ve never written a song where the story was entirely created. Every story, every song, every story that’s in a song, is referring to something that happened. So being in Boston and being at home -being in two places- has been helpful because the more you experience the more it can kind of influence what you’re writing.
How do you reach out to all these people and develop potential collaborations?
A lot of it has been reaching out, sending them a sample of my vocals or music and, if they like it, if they really vibe with it, they’ll tend to reach back out because some of the guys who I’ve been working with who produce would charge for beats. But with me they don’t charge for studio time in their apartments, they don’t charge for beats. I mean, I guess you could say they’re working pro-bono but it’s more of just a friendship. There’s no tension as in, “You need to pay me.” So that’s really nice to have and a lot of that did just come out of, often if you make music that people really vibe with and share your vision or just want to be a part of, it’s really nice because there’s not that extra barrier of feeling that they want something other than to work with you.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout this whole process?
So I think the biggest challenge has been is running out of time because I have to balance creating the music, recording it, and then releasing it. Other than that, writing is never—I mean sometimes it is, sometimes you write absolute shit for a week—and then you get something that you think is good. So that can be challenging and frustrating, but that’s just part of writing. Not everything is going to be what you want. But yeah, I think just time is the number one challenge because I am in school.
If you could summarize what you want listeners to take away from your music, what would it be?
Definitely a feeling. To be more specific, I want them to feel how I feel when I listen to artists that I listen to in order to share some kind of emotion. It could be pain from a relationship, it could be lust over somebody, any of those things, but often it’s an emotion and often, it’s not just happy or sad. It’s something a bit deeper. My goal—that’s a very good question—and it’s hard to put simply because it’s very deep. I want people—like let’s say at night I’m feeling a certain way and I’ll just use Alicia Keys as an example—I’ll play one of the songs from her earlier albums because I like how it makes me feel and I connect whatever I’m going through with that. That’s what I want people to do with my music. That’s the best way to explain that. Be able to connect their experience to that emotion.
Have you had any memorable experiences with listeners or people who have really liked your music?
Yeah, so far listeners who have contacted me have primarily been through SoundCloud and they’re not necessarily people who have major followings or producers. I think that the most valuable feedback and support I’ve received have been through people that I’ve reached out to. There’s this young saxophonist called Braxton Cook. He recently played on Beyoncé’s show and he’s on the Anderson .Paak track. So he’s doing really big things and I reached out to him about two years ago now and we still—at least every other week—contact each other on Facebook, share music or share ideas and that’s kind of, I wouldn’t even call him a fan, but he’s someone who supports what I do and wants to be part of that. Those relationships are better. I’ve had people reach out and just be like “I love your vocals!” I try to do that for artists because I feel the same way because we’re all out here working.
Is there a story behind “Una Angel,” your stage name?
Yeah, a little bit. So my real name is Una Healey and there’s an Una Healy who has tons of followers. She’s Irish. That was just not going to work. Initially, I was just going to go with “Una,” but I was having issues because coming to college and introducing myself to people, some people would be like “What? What’s that?” Also, there’s a “Yuna,” who’s recording with Usher right now and getting pretty big. So I think it’s also really important to have something I can brand because Una, on its own, doesn’t really mean anything. So the angel thing, for me, I think has a lot of significance. It’s this idea that, for me, you can be sweet and all of that, but I can still have that rough edge and so, I think that my goal is to use that and kind of develop. Think of Rihanna “good girl gone bad.” I mean I’m not trying to do that but naturally, that’s just what happens in my music. I think it’s important that your brand is true to what you’re creating and it’s not forced. What I’m creating influences the brand.