Ally Bakst on Influences, "Past Life," and Connecting Visual Art With Music
Ally Bakst is a rising independent electro-alt-pop singer and songwriter from New York City. In September 2020, she released her immersive debut EP, Past Life.
Bakst's work is a coalescence of both audio and visual elements, with each song evoking a strong narrative and emotions. Her silky-smooth, signature vocal sound combined with witty lyricism are a winning pair and are sure to leave you awestruck. The captivating hook melody of "Pretty Girls" works perfectly with the bouncy, sometimes orchestral-sounding instrumentals. The EP's title track, "Past Life", is another highlight of the release, complete with distorted electric guitars and an emotional vocal performance. Throughout Past Life, Bakst expertly intertwines both live and electronic instrumentations to create something fun, catchy, and fresh.
We spoke with Ally Bakst about her debut EP, musical influences, and how she connects visual art with her music. Check out the full interview below and stream Past Life.
What is your earliest memory of music?
I remember having a karaoke machine that I played with for forever and sitting at the piano with my dad when I was really little–like in diapers. I just always loved getting into a rhythm with the music and watching him reach over octaves with one hand, which amazed me.
Who or what first inspired you to sing and write music?
I honestly can’t remember when I started singing because I started doing it before I could speak real words. I’d just sort of follow along with songs or make up my own melodies and lyrics, and I found it really therapeutic and calming. I stored this little, fluffy, pink journal in my acoustic guitar case that I would write sappy love songs in before I even knew what I was really talking about. It was a natural passion that developed almost as a part of me rather than as a hobby because I was always doing it.
"I stored this little, fluffy, pink journal in my acoustic guitar case that I would write sappy love songs in before I even knew what I was really talking about."
I picked up the piano at seven years old until I stopped lessons a few years later to try something new. I have two older brothers, and my parents required that we always play at least one instrument, so I switched to the guitar in third grade. My brother used to tell me I couldn’t hold the guitar neck because my hands were too small, so that made me want to do it even more, just to prove him wrong. I also had different voice coaches throughout my childhood, and I think the encouragement from them and my family definitely pushed me along this path. I always wanted to entertain and did musical theatre and professional ESL (English as a second language) voiceovers, so my voice was always my focus.
How have your musical influences changed over time?
When I was really young, I listened almost exclusively to classic rock and reggae, like The Beatles and Bob Marley because my dad and brothers loved them. My brothers and I all had the same guitar teacher, and we’d learn some of the same songs so we could jam in the living room together. That was always the best. Whitney Houston was also definitely a huge inspiration for me. I love how powerful her voice is; I’d sit in the shower for hours with the water off and belt her songs over a track on my computer trying to copy her. Over time I started listening to more pop and alternative music like Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit, but I’d say even through changes in my musical influences, all of them have very impressive and catchy writing styles or unique voices that really make me feel like I’m in a different world.
How would you describe your sound?
I mostly write pop and alternative music, but I incorporate all different subgenres based on what type of vibe I’m going for. The most defining characteristic of my sound is definitely my unusually low and raspy voice featured in the main vocals and grand vocal stacks in the background. I also include a lot of recordings I take on my phone’s voice memos to bring personal memories and sounds into my songs.
Tell us a little bit more about your EP Past Life.
I started writing Past Life during the spring of my Freshman year, when I took Songwriting I at USC and met my first producer, who was a Senior at the time—Andrew Basile. We worked together on a song for class that ended up being “Another Time,” and even after he graduated, we decided to keep working on new stuff. I would drive from school to his house in West Hollywood all the time after class to write and record, and we finished the project during the COVID-19 pandemic the next year.
The songs in this EP were definitely inspired by my experiences in high school and college with guys and life in general. The project represents a phase in my life before a major mental shift, and it’s so crazy to be able to retrospectively listen to how I felt in the past. I love that Adele names her albums after how old she is at the time because I resonate with that so much.
My favorite part of the process was definitely collaborating with Andrew. It was really a creative outlet that gave me a lot of relief from the stress of school. The most challenging part was the logistics of releasing the project, which included creating the artwork, marketing, publishing, playlisting, and distribution for the music. Doing all of this myself, I learned a lot about how it all works from the other side of the industry. Although it was hard, I'm a hands-on learner and I’m glad I forced myself to do it all.
How do you think visual art and music play into one another?
My art and music are very intertwined, and often lyrics will pop up in my artwork that I use in my songs, or lyrics will pop up in my songs that I’ll find myself writing later on a canvas. I can also use art to visualize my music in order to give people insight into how I see my music, almost like a personalized pinterest board all in one artwork. I can see music visually and can hear music when I look at art, so my art and music inspire each other. In this same sense, I can see the music video for each song in my mind, and what I see inspires how I write the songs. Simultaneously, what I write inspires what I see. I also often hide words in my art that force viewers to look and think for longer to understand, and I do the same thing with complex metaphors in my songs that take work to decode.
" I can use art to visualize my music in order to give people insight into how I see my music, almost like a personalized pinterest board all in one artwork."
How do you incorporate visual elements into your own work?
My songs are very soundescapy in their mixes, and I think this puts listeners in a space that I’ve helped them create and visualize. The way that I see and feel that space when I hear it is definitely different from other people who listen to it, but it takes on new possibilities and life with each person that hears it. A good example of this is a song I recently finished as one of my first three studio songs called “I Don’t Want You.” In my mind, the song starts in a Burlesque, 1940s bar theme and transitions back and forth between that vibe and a dance beat. In the bridge, I imagine that the bassist is warming up during the show’s intermission while three 1940s background vocalists join in until the curtain opens, the show starts again, and the dance beat kicks in. All of this is audibly mirrored in the music.
What message do you hope to convey through your music?
I want to push the boundaries of imagination and creativity and show that everything is connected. Just as much as I can combine music, fine art, and film, other disciplines like science can and should be creative too. I look up to scientist Neri Oxman because she does this in such a cool way, combining science and design. I want to encourage people to be unapologetically the best versions of themselves and show them that creativity is valuable and infinite. I think the key to making your dreams come true is realizing that your reality can only be as amazing as you let yourself imagine it to be.
"I want to encourage people to be unapologetically the best versions of themselves and show them that creativity is valuable and infinite."
What’s next for Ally Bakst?
I’m currently working on my first studio album with my producer Mark Vogel, and one of our first songs is being featured in a movie coming out sometime this spring. I’m also working on my live show right now, so I’ll be performing around LA in the near future.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I'm excited and optimistic about the future, and I can’t wait to put my new music out and find fans and creatives to connect with!