PHOTOS // MALLORY M TURNER
STORY // MOLLY HUDELSON
MAKEUP // ABIGAIL SMITH
From her hometown of Toronto to her current residence in Los Angeles, Daniella Watters – who creates music through her electro alt-pop project X. ARI – lives a life of both balance and contrast. This can be seen in her latest release, “Break Point,” which combines airy, electro-pop vocals in the chorus and industrial, edgy guitars in the verses. In a songwriting session, she played songs she was listening to at the time – like “Dream State (Dark Day)” by Son Lux – around which they built the track. Once the instrumental track was complete, she started writing the lyrics. The result is a track that tells the story of her spiraling down before a mental health breakdown in November 2016, and the post-traumatic stress she experienced.
Soon to come is the performance art video for “Break Point.” The video consists of a continuous overhead shot, which sees her smash an egg filled with glitter glue on her face, hold a magnifying glass in front of her mouth, and push away gloved hand puppets that come into view. She wants to leave the meaning of the video open to people’s interpretation, but “I really wanted to do something captivating that kept people watching till the end and wondering what’s gonna happen next.” Shot in one-take (except for the ending), the making of the video was “very high-risk”: “if I messed up the lyrics or we messed up one of the shots, then we would’ve had to restart, and that would’ve meant me showering, redoing my hair and makeup… we practiced it so much; it was very high stakes, we rehearsed it for hours before we shot it.”
At the end of the video, the viewer gets the first glimpse of IRA X.: X. ARI’s alter ego. The idea emerged from wanting to do “something fun and creative with my projects.” The interaction of IRA X. and X. ARI is “like a yin-yang”, showing contrast both visually and sonically: “he’s my opposite, it’s a lot of duality, and you can even hear in the production of ‘Break Point’, there’s a soft piano part accented against the aggressive guitar elements.” With an edgy and intense aesthetic, IRA X. represents “more of the dark side, troubles, and melancholic,” while X. ARI is “really light and pretty,” so the two balance each other out.
ARI describes IRA X. as “my twin flame, brother.” He’ll be featured on three songs on her upcoming EP UNI-FI, and he’ll also have his own single come out in March. “He’ll have his own Spotify page which I think is hilarious,” X. ARI tells me. “It’s really fun, and it’s cool to dress as a drag king and explore something totally different – I was gonna do something unique and fascinating to enjoy the creative process with.” For her show on January 31 at The Sayers Club, she’ll perform “split-face”: with the help of her roommate, she’s designing a costume that’s “half female, half male.” “I bought a male outfit and a female outfit,” she says, “and we’re cutting it in half and sewing it together down the middle.”
The follow-up to her 2018 EP Dis-Order,UNI-FI , will be released this summer. It’s “a duality concept record” unlike anything she’s done previously, which she describes as “dichotomous and accenting the yin-yang, and dark and light, and balance.” However, it’s also cohesive: while Dis-Order was five songs recorded by five different producers, Unify has only three producers involved, and four of the six songs were recorded with one of the producers. It’s “more of a storytelling concept record,” which is something X. ARI has never taken before. While Dis-Order was “dedicated to mental health,” the songs were indirectly related to mental health; this release is “a bit more straight on, referring to things like ‘maybe I’m post-traumatic stress’ – it’s a bit more explicitly in the lyrics.”
On her website, she has a list of self-care tips for those dealing with mental illness. These include everything from hotline numbers and resources to find a therapist or support group in your area, to yoga and meditation videos, to advice on how to sleep well. Creating the self-care resources section was “really integral” because when she was at her lowest and dealing with depression, ” I didn’t know where to start and I found it really intimidating the amount of resources there are on the web. It’s an exhaustive list, and there’s so many things to try.” Dealing with her own mental illnesses, she’s tried several things to cope, “and it takes a lot of discovering and trying out and experimenting and seeing what works for you.” So, she created a self-care “cheat sheet” to help people “who don’t have the energy to necessarily, or feel like they can, focus, so it’s all in one place.”
Permeating throughout her music is the ongoing “Pain Into Power” campaign, which began with the singles “Cattle Call” and “Vapors.” The idea of turning pain into power is “an attitude, it’s like a motto,” and it’s something she’ll always do through her music as it supports her mental health awareness angle. In the moments when she’s struggling, making music is cathartic. Expressing her feelings through songwriting is an important way to get things off her chest and process her feelings, and although she loves listening to artists like Perfume Genius, when she’s feeling down “it’s the creative process that I find the most healing and therapeutic.”
While the emergence of IRA X. and the Unify EP bring about themes of contrast in X. ARI’s music, it’s not about swinging back and forth between extremes. Instead, it’s the balance that’s most important. When asked what advice she’d give to her younger self, the first thing that comes to mind is striking a balance. “That’s the ultimate goal,” she says, ” Just see life as like a pie chart of – there’s health, there’s creativity, there’s soul, there’s social, there’s a variety of different pieces to the pie and to make sure they’re equal rather than over-saturated in one area.” Finding balance within the duality is an ongoing process, but with each step – and each song – she gets a little bit closer.
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