Martyn Pepperell talks to R&B and neo-soul singer-songwriter Villette about making it from the Mad Butcher to Los Angeles.
“You have to decide what you want out of music,” says Villette Dasha, better known under the mononym Villette, when we meet in Auckland on a warm afternoon in April. A Samoan-Chinese singer, songwriter and producer (who can rap and DJ as well) from South Auckland, for the last few years she’s been creating haunting R&B and neo-soul songs underpinned by the rattle and thud of trap rap.
Right now, however, she’s telling me about the way she approaches not just music itself but also the larger engine of the music industry. “I think a lot of people don’t know what they want out of it or are doing it for the wrong reasons,” she says. “That’s why you get so many people who start and just stop. Or, they do know what they want, but they aren’t prepared to work hard for it or play the game. I think people forget it’s an actual industry.”
Villette never forgets it. She knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty to achieve it. This year she’s been juggling music with casual hours at one of The Mad Butcher’s outlets in Auckland, chopping meats as well as beats until she’s able to take the next step. “I want to make a proper living,’ she says. “I want a Grammy. I want to work with the people I’ve always dreamed about working with, because at the end of the day it will always be about the love of the music. I want to do this for my whole life.”
Villette is 22, with wavy hair she often wears tied back and piercing dark eyes that can be assertive or empathetic. We’re sitting out the back of a cafe in Grey Lynn, around the corner from the local offices of Red Bull Music, which Villette has been working with since 2016. Her first showcase, organised by underground music promotion company Madcap, led to a working relationship which saw her travel to Los Angeles later that year to perform at Red Bull Music’s 30 Days in LA Festival and take part in songwriting and production sessions in Hollywood. “If you’re an artist, you need a good team around you to be professional,” she says. “A lot of super famous rappers might not seem professional online, but the people around them are hella professional. No one sees that.”
In December 2017, Red Bull Music offered Villette the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles again. This time they wanted her to film a 360-degree virtual reality music video for her fuzzed-out slow jam ‘Money’ with American digital production company Baron VR. Six months later, they presented the video for the first time at a production warehouse on Ponsonby Road. The vast white space was wrapped in wall-to-wall projections of the video, with ten VR headsets positioned throughout. Dressed in lingerie (as she is in much of the video), Villette held court from a bed in the centre of the room, entertaining visiting media, musicians, family and friends as they took their turn experiencing her virtual reality. Inside the headset, the purple-hued psychedelia of projections took on a new dimension, as viewers stepped into the feverish haze of an ex-lover’s memories of Villette. Their reactions were funny, awkward, and sweet.
With local musicians and multi-disciplinary artists like Ladi6, Bailey Wiley, Rubi Du, Half Queen and Jahra Rager in the building, the support Villette has within Auckland’s creative community was palpable. What’s going on with her is about a lot more than one video though, and it began a lot earlier than six months, or even two years, ago.
Born in 1995, Villette grew up in a Christian family which moved between Papakura, Manurewa and Hamilton. She came to music early, getting her start singing, playing instruments and dancing before she’d even reached primary school. During her childhood years, Villette learned piano, guitar, violin, recorder, and drums, giving her a sense of rhythm and melody that would serve her well later on down the line.
“From a young age, my mother would let us listen to whatever we wanted,” she says. “The second album I listened to properly was 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Trying. Mum used to work at SENZ, a centre for kids that had dropped out of high school, just off K Road. I’d go there with her, and they’d make us mix CDs of the songs they listened to, which was a lot of early-2000s rap. They also used to do cornrows in my hair. Mum would always introduce us to people who were into music. That’s our culture. She met our dad through a band, and she can play the trumpet, piano, guitar, and sing.”
But Villette’s parents’ marriage didn’t last. When they separated, Villette lived with her mother, who just might be her biggest supporter and role model. Now a literacy facilitator who works in a remote part of the Solomon Islands to help preserve indigenous languages and combat poverty, in the past Villette’s mother worked at universities and spent time as a primary school principal. Often working and studying at the same time, she still did everything she could to give Villette and her sister the opportunities she felt they deserved – which, in Villette’s early teens, meant she took them for trips to the Pacific Islands, Thailand, Dubai and Europe. Travelling overseas broadened Villette’s worldview, gave her a sense of the weight of history, and made her realise what can be accomplished with focus.
“From a young age, me and my sister were always concerned about how [my mum] was able to do this,” Villette says. “She was studying, working, being an all-around boss, and taking us on these trips. We were like, what the fuck, how?”
When Villette was 16 she left high school and spent the next six months studying sciences at the University of Waikato, before realising academia wasn’t for her. She moved to Auckland to study DJing and electronic music production at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ). Meanwhile, she’d been writing songs for a few years already, and with a growing interest in hip-hop, dance music and R&B, she wanted to move away from being the girl with the guitar.
At MAINZ, she learned to DJ under the tutelage of international turntablist champion and YouTube comedian DJ Spell, and soon started picking up club gigs around Auckland. She connected with local promotions groups and began scoring support slots for visiting international DJs. At the same time, she was honing her production skills at the institute – and battling some personal demons.
For her 18th birthday her mother took her to Los Angeles. Walking around Hollywood, her mother told her: “You’ll be back here soon.” While they were there, Villette took part in a Christian spiritual process commonly described as a Sozo session. “A lot of people think it’s fake,” she admits. ‘I don’t know what it is, but it worked for me. You go into a room with these two people and they guide you through your past, or whatever you feel is blocking you from connecting with God spiritually. At that point, I was in a toxic relationship, and I was abusing drugs to the point where I was very sick. My tutor at MAINZ had sat me down and told me I was going to fail the certificate if I didn’t step my game up, so I went over, did the Sozo session, came back, got rid of the guy, and got myself together.” These days, her belief in a higher power has evolved into something more personal than simply identifying with a set religion. “I have different views,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I have Christian views, but I do have faith.”
After completing her certificate at MAINZ, Villette continued DJing, began to produce for and with other artists, and started to sing as well. She collaborated with local producers T1R and Elkco and began networking with overseas vocalists and music makers through social media. “Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, you name it,” she laughs. Next, she dropped a tape of “dark, intense” instrumentals, and started catching reposts, likes and reshares from SoundCloud celebrities like Sango and Mr Carmack, from LA DJ Joe Kay’s Soulection collective. Locally, producers like SmokeyGotBeatz and P-Money started messaging her. “David Dallas followed me on SoundCloud, which was huge.”
Around the same time, she began working with another emerging local electronic/hip-hop producer named Troy Samuela, who she credits with helping with her creative development in the studio. She also started to get messages and emails from music managers and record labels in Australia and began flying back and forth for studio sessions for singers and rappers, as well as her own live shows. As much as she loves singing, she says she takes a particular joy from writing for other artists and crafting lyrics or melodies that just wouldn’t sound right in her voice. In Australia, she connected with Melbourne label Valve Sounds, home to another SoundCloud success story UV Boi. In 2016, they released her single ‘Beige’ and later helped her out with the release of her first mixtape, Drip Crimson, in December 2017.
Drip Crimson was where it all came together. In the lead-up to its release, her name began to appear on online music culture outlets like Complex, HillyDilly, Purple Sneakers, i-D, and Noisey, building her cachet with tastemakers as her fan following grew. She scored a couple of instrumentals off Troy Samuela, one from a Chicago-based beatmaker she met on Twitter, and created the rest of the project herself. While putting the mixtape together, Villette realised she was crafting a commentary on relationships. Song by song, she paired the futurism of synth-heavy EDM and trap music with the sultry melodies of ’90s R&B and early-2000s neo-soul, with splashes of trip-hop, downbeat and dream pop filling things out. The mixtape follows a relationship from the rose-tinted first dates and overnight stays to the slow creeping realisation that things aren’t quite right, and the frustration, anger, and reflection that follows. It ends with a chance at redemption, and a weight born from intensive effort and introspection.
Since Drip Crimson’s release, Villette has been stepping up her live performance schedule and production work, while building a collection of new material to release later this year. “I think at this point, nothing is going to stop me from making music,” she says. “By making this decision to do something as selfish as making music – in terms of what I put my family through in the past – I’m going to do it to make money, and make that my bread and butter. I’ll do whatever the fuck it takes. I’m here to play the game.”
Villette backs herself to the fullest extent, but the wellspring she draws from in doing so is her mother’s belief in her. “If she didn’t think I could make music, I wouldn’t do it, because I believe in her believing in me so much,” she says. Fittingly, when Villette returned to Los Angeles for 30 Days In LA in 2016, she performed at a venue in the same area they’d wandered through on that first trip. Her mother came out for that performance as well, quietly commenting beforehand, “I knew you were going to do it.”
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