R&B pop powerhouse Dakota is a former American Idol contestant who’s performed on a variety of stages—from the NAMM Show to Lollapalooza, Conan O’Brien to Russell Brand, Summerfest to Gathering of the Vibes. A multi-instrumentalist with a staggering five-octave vocal range, she hopes to empower and uplift with every song she releases. Berklee Groove talked with this rising star about her upcoming single, her time on Idol, and how her experiences on the show have translated to her studies at Berklee.
Interviewed by Ceskie
Where did your journey as a musician begin?
My musical journey started when I was about five—I was introduced to musical theatre and was doing that for a little bit. Then I saw some random band playing at an outdoor mall by my house, and I decided “I want to be in a band; I want to be playing on stage. I don’t want to be singing musicals, even though that’s still in my heart a little bit. I want to be on stage with a band behind me, and I want to learn all the instruments.” So at age nine my mom put me into lessons for drums, guitar, keys, bass...whatever I could grab my hands onto, so I’ve been in bands since then. I started doing classic rock covers which turned into funk and blues, and then I transitioned into thinking about what I liked to listen to and what I had noticed my parents listening to. That’s how I drew my ear more into R&B/soul music. And obviously Top 100 hits are all pop, so when I started writing at about 14 years old, what I was writing just happened to be pop R&B. That’s what flowed out of me. I’ve written a few rock tunes, but mostly it’s pop R&B. I just like to write music that you can dance to with your friends, and I’d rather listen to music that makes me happy than music that makes me sad.
What inspired your upcoming single?
“Wanna Know” is about that fluttery feeling, the butterflies when you have a crush. You’re in that stage where you know they like you, but you don’t have a complete answer set, and that’s kind of the exciting part about having a crush. It’s about wanting to know, “Do you feel this too? Are you sure? Cause I’m sure.” The song started when I was playing with a friend—I was on keys, he was on guitar—and we ended up playing the same kind of chord progression; then we tuned it up a little bit and literally wrote it in an hour.
Do you have a songwriting process?
Normally we just write the song as-is; then we give it a few days to sit, listen to the demo over and over again, and hope to avoid demo-itis. I know I always do that—get stuck to whatever I wrote the first time. So having other people listen to it, seeing where it loses energy and how we can kind of bring that back up a little bit, if there’s any awkward phrases that we missed...all of those things help. But normally my songs stay the same from the first session.
Who’s inspiring you at the moment?
I am always listening to PJ Morton. He’s always been an inspiration of mine; I’ve seen him live four times. In-between other artists, he’s always a staple. Teena Marie has always been someone I’ve looked up to. As far as current artists there’s Jessie J and Tori Kelly, who has this new gospel album that I’m really into.
Tell me about your experience being on American Idol!
That was quite a whirlwind! Obviously it’s a reality TV show and I knew what I was signing up for. I was very, very, very hesitant about it, and people were telling me things like “they’re going to try to change you.” So I knew that if I was going to sign up to be on the show, I needed to be strong in who I wanted to be as an artist, who I wanted to portray myself as, and not change myself for them just because I wanted to be on the show. That wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to see what this opportunity was, because you might as well take an opportunity as it’s handed to you.
It was interesting; the producers did try to kind of sway me into being more of an Ariana Grande type, but I really stuck to my guns, sang the songs I wanted to sing, and answered my questions in the interviews as I would answer them myself, not as the person they were trying to make me be. It didn’t settle with them very well, so it was a bit of a butting heads kind of thing. But I did have a good time in terms of making friends—the people I met on the show were so talented and such good people. I had such an amazing cast. There weren’t any issues in terms of arguments, so that really made the experience so amazing. Looking back at it a year later, I was really strong in my opinions and what I wanted to be as an artist, and through all of the turmoil with the producers I was still able to stay true to myself. Now I know exactly where I am as an artist.
How did you get on the show?
I was approached a couple years beforehand and I said no, because I’d heard all these bad things and didn’t want to be brought up into that. But then I was just in a state where everything was going stagnant in my music. I was writing constantly and wanted to get recognized a little bit, so after I was asked a second time I thought “you know what, might as well just do it. I have some time still in high school; it’ll be a cool story.” That was kind of it.
How are you applying what you learned on Idol to studying at Berklee and achieving your career goals?
It’s a bit of a balance, because you’re trying to get out everything you can in terms of theory, ear training, and all the fundamentals as well as developing your creative side. It’s about finding the right people at Berklee to connect, write, and produce with. There’s a plethora of opportunities and so many different people that it’s just overwhelming, and you just have to find the right people to work with. Once you do it’s like magic, because everyone wants to be successful here; everyone has pretty much the same interests, and everyone loves music, so there’s never a dull moment. I’m always learning about new music, things I might want to do with my artistry, types of songs I’ve never written that I want to write. It just opens my mind to a whole new kind of thing.
After you graduate, what do you see yourself doing? Who would you love to work with?
Hopefully I’ll be signed. I definitely want to keep writing for myself as well as for other people, and I’m super into producing. I’ll want to be performing more, too.
I really want to work with Mark Ronson. He’s just always been one of my tops. Everything that he does is literally magic—it’s all so funky and you’re able to dance to every single song that he puts out, even if it’s a slow song. That’s my goal. I want to make people dance; I want for people to remember the times they had while they were listening to my songs. He does that with every song, and he’s really inspirational.
How do you #getinthegroove? It’s keeping yourself always inspired—constantly listening to new music and talking to new people. You always have to be curious, wanting to learn more and trying to listen to more music, and that just keeps me going. I always want to do new things and work with new people. It keeps me creating new goals for myself; I’m never satisfied, ever. I’m always trying to do new things and continue my path by learning from as many people as possible.