After releasing one of 2021’s most impressive, interesting and enjoyable albums – the wonderful Apples to Oranges, Dust to Dust – it was a privilege to interview the artist and songwriter behind the project, the multi-talented Mia Stegner.
Throughout the chat we dig deep into the purpose and process of the songs that make up the album, as well as Mia’s own journey as a songwriter and creative. Here’s our conversation in full.
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Hi Mia – what a pleasure, thanks for the chat! Massive congrats on the wonderful album, it’s a personal favourite from this entire year.
Just to set the scene a little – where are you based right now, and what have you been busy with this past week?
Thank you so much! I’m living in Syracuse, New York. I graduated in May, and my siblings are both attending Syracuse University (one a freshman, the other in grad school), so I decided to tag along with them!
We recently moved into a new 3-bedroom together, so this past week, it’s mainly been a lot of sorting and unpacking, and getting ready to head home for the holidays.
What first inspired you to start writing original music?
I’ve always loved music, writing, and storytelling, and around middle school those passions kind of melded into songwriting. I’ve also always been compelled to express my thoughts and feelings in one way or another, and songwriting very quickly became my favorite way to do that.
More specifically, I was definitely inspired by dodie, Tessa Violet, Orla Gartland, and a handful of other songwriters whose vlogs and music videos I watched religiously in my teenage years because of how seen they made me feel.
“Out of everything I felt during that time — grief, rejection, loneliness, anger, embarrassment — the confusion was probably the most unbearable.”
What can you tell us about the new album – how did the title come to be, and what does the project represent for you?
So this is kind of a tangent, but I accidentally started a pattern with my album titles when I made Purple Door and then Indebted to Blue — for the album after that, I wrote a song about painting a bathroom wall, and called the album Painting the Bathroom Green. At that point not only did those titles all include colors, moving in backwards rainbow order, but also we have a pattern of two words, then three, then four.
I actually love the title Scribbled Pleas on Yellowed Keys, I think it really fits, but I’ll admit it was a little bit forced. I simply had to come up with a five-word title that included “yellow.” And to be honest, moving into the new album, I was trying to let go of that pattern haha. I told myself unless something came together serendipitously, I wasn’t going to do a six-word title with “orange” in it unless it really felt right. I honestly didn’t think anything was going to fit.
This past year I went through a breakup type thing that I had a very difficult time processing, as you can probably tell from the album. There were all sorts of factors of this situation that made it extra hurtful and I won’t get too far into them because it’s still a pretty nasty spiral for me, but I really did not see it coming.
Out of everything I felt during that time — grief, rejection, loneliness, anger, embarrassment — the confusion was probably the most unbearable. I really could not fathom how the beginning had led to the end and I tried so, so hard to make sense of it.
Somehow during that time the phrase “apples and oranges” was brought up and I think I cried a little, just because of the reminder that some things can’t be compared, I guess.
Wikipedia describes the idiom as referring to “comparing two items or groups of items that cannot be practically compared, typically because of inherent, fundamental and/or qualitative differences between the items.” That’s what this felt like. I kept trying to synthesize and analyze, and I got addicted to this cycle of trying to make sense of something that really truly just did not have a satisfying explanation or reason or answer. So I kept telling myself apples and oranges. Him then and him now, me then and me now, us then and us now — these pairs of things were so different that they couldn’t be compared and it was a waste of my time and energy to try. But I’d still get hung up on the fact that in this case, it was as if the apples turned into the oranges. It wasn’t apples and oranges, it was apples to oranges.
Additionally I think of apples as wholesome and sweet, and oranges as a little more complicated or potentially sour, kind of a lemon vibe. But also like the morning, like orange juice at breakfast, like a fresh start on a new day. But the biggest thing is just that they’re different, and incomparable. So that’s where “apples to oranges” comes from, and then when I started writing the song Apples to Oranges” the phrase “dust to dust” popped into my head and felt so relevant — much like we’re all just a little blip in the universe, this relationship came from nowhere and led to nowhere. It should probably be called Dust to Apples to Oranges to Dust, now that I think about it haha. But that is where the title came from!
All of my albums end up representing a chapter of my life. However, this album was definitely very centered around this experience of heartbreak and my attempts not only to heal from it but just to understand it. This is the first time I’ve written multiple songs about a specific person — I’d argue that they’re still “about” me ultimately, but I am referring to a specific person in them — and that felt weird and new, and it makes this album feel more connected to that person and that experience than just a moment in time — but it’s feeling more and more like a chapter in a bigger story, so I’m hoping that’s what it will eventually represent.
“I only believe in optimism when it feels true. So if I want there to be any sort of positive or helpful spin in what I’m saying, I have to find a real one.”
Was this a solo effort entirely, or did you have a team behind you?
It was primarily a solo effort, but I did have a handful of collaborators! The songs were mixed & mastered by James Palko, who releases music under the name Jimmy Montague — I hired him for my previous album too, and I love his music a ton, so it’s pretty cool that I get to work with him. He also arranged and recorded the strings on When to Run.
Ramita Arora played guitar on Like a Leech and Where I Called Home. Adrien Callahan played drums on Greedy. Akil Augustus played bass on Aboveground. Also for Aboveground, I knew I wanted multiple voices on the choruses, so I invited my followers to submit vocals, so for that it was a group of about twelve people. The full credits for all my songs are on Bandcamp.
Which song from the project means the most to you personally, and why?
It’s a great question, but I don’t think I’d be able to give a definitive answer. Maybe that means I’m getting better at quitting while I’m ahead when it comes to trying to answer the unanswerable! But yeah, so many of these songs were so personal and so deeply cathartic, it’s hard to point to just one.
Do you perform much live (pre/post Covid), or is that part of the plan moving into 2022?
I’ve actually never performed live, other than choir concerts growing up, and more recently a handful of informal livestreams from my bedroom haha. I’ve always loved traveling and been really drawn to the idea of touring, but when it comes to the actual performance aspect, I don’t quite understand how people do it!
I love writing music but frankly I think I would have a hard time getting motivated to practice and memorize my songs, not to mention planning a tour, even if I had help. I’ve also always been a very project-oriented person, and in a sense I think of each song or album as a project. I like to create the music and then kind of put it behind me and move onto the next thing. When I finish a project, I have such a strong sense of being done that it’s hard to imagine spending more time with it I guess?
All that said, over the past year or so I’ve started following more artists and more bands on social media, and I do honestly get a little jealous. I guess I’ve been bitten by the tour bug, but also it was a small bite, but also I’m only halfheartedly trying to suck the venom out? I’m still not sure I’d actually enjoy it, but it’s definitely something I’m slightly more open to now than I have been in the past.
“When you put your work out into the world, it suddenly has the potential to receive feedback, and that’s scary, so you don’t wanna get your hopes up that anyone’s gonna love it the way you loved it, or even like it at all.”
Your lyrics are wonderful, and the long-form melodies you deliver with. How do you craft a new track, where do you start, and how different does it feel to listen back to these songs once they’re in the hands of the world?
Thank you! I almost always start with lyrics, but I very rarely finish the lyrics before moving on to other steps, if that makes sense. Every song comes together pretty differently, but if I had to paint a picture of my typical process, it would be 1) a few lyrics form in my head or get pulled from a rambling mind dump in my notes app, 2) I keep writing (maybe minutes, hours, days, or weeks later), but as I’m writing, my melody wheels are starting to turn and I’m thinking about the natural rhythms and stresses of the words, 3) as soon as a firm enough idea of a melody comes into my head, I record it on a voice memo, even if I think I might change it later, 4) when I have enough to work with, I sit with an instrument and find some chords and just play with all of it until it feels right.
Once the songs are in the world, it feels different for sure. There’s always points of the process where I’m really happy with a given song, and points where I’m less happy. I notice this tendency in other artists too, where you love your demos, and you love what you’re working on while you’re working on it, but then once they’re out in the world you don’t like them as much.
I have two theories on this that I think are both true for me — one is that you spend a lot of time with these songs and by the time release comes around you’re just kind of numb to them, you’re kind of bored, like when you listen to your favorite song a hundred times and get a little sick of it for a while. The other is that when you put your work out into the world, it suddenly has the potential to receive feedback, and that’s scary, so you don’t wanna get your hopes up that anyone’s gonna love it the way you loved it, or even like it at all.
There’s a lot of weirdness around self-promotion, too — it’s so necessary, for indie artists especially, but the line between being seen as proud and being seen as self-obsessed is a tricky one. And it’s impossible not to think about what people will think of how you present yourself, especially when it feels like it’s a piece of whether people will listen to your work or even whether you’ll be able to keep doing it. So when it comes to my brand or my presentation, I don’t actively strategize or think about it too much, but a lot of those feelings and questions about how to talk about your own music just naturally and inevitably impact how you feel about it.
I would say once they’re out in the world I’m more influenced by or more concerned over how I think other people will interpret them, but I’m not sure if that’s true. A lot of my songs are just me trying to explain things to myself, but even as I’m writing I’m thinking about other people to a degree. Sometimes I worry that that’ll make my writing less authentic, but I think if anything it just keeps me in a healthier headspace.
I want to be honest, but I also don’t want to be too negative. Particularly when working with sadder songs, I don’t want to bring everybody down unless there’s some sort of lesson or redeeming quality haha. At the same time, I don’t want to be fake. I only believe in optimism when it feels true. So if I want there to be any sort of positive or helpful spin in what I’m saying, I have to find a real one. And that process of figuring out why I’ll be okay or what I can learn from something is really deeply valuable to me, even if I’m writing it with other people in mind.
I think sometimes I care more for the people who might relate to what I’m saying than I do for myself, but ultimately it translates into self-compassion. And if I didn’t write songs or share these feelings, I’m not sure if I would take the time to do that, to find any sort of purpose or reprieve. And I always want there to at least be a purpose, if not a silver lining — even if that purpose is just feeling my feelings or processing difficult emotions. I think you can kind of feel that in this album especially, just my desperation to find the purpose in what I’m feeling and thinking, to find the truth, to find anything helpful. And at the same time, trying to let go of the need to find answers, trying to let sad things be sad things.
That was a lot of words but in summary, my feelings about certain songs do change — sometimes drastically and sometimes not much, sometimes within minutes of writing it and sometimes years later — in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. And sending them out into the world is definitely a factor, even before it actually happens.
You’re a multi-instrumentalist it seems – where did you start, and what’s your favourite go to when writing?
I took piano lessons for several years growing up, but when I started writing songs it was primarily on ukulele. I taught myself guitar around the same time, I believe toward the end of middle school. I wrote For the Rats on ukulele, but other than that I believe this album was all written on keyboard, and that’s become my favorite to write with.
What I love about the piano is that you can visually see the notes, and they’re all in order. With guitar and uke — and maybe this is just because I’m self-taught and don’t put much practice in — I still don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, even when I do. I know I could get to a point where it would probably click a little more or Make Sense the way piano does, but I’m not there yet. So with piano I’ve just realized I have the most freedom with it, it gives me the biggest playground in a sense.
“There’s a lot of weirdness around self-promotion… The line between being seen as proud and being seen as self-obsessed is a tricky one.”
You’ve built up a strong following on YouTube and elsewhere, what would you say are the main steps you’ve taken to branch out and connect with an increasing number of people?
I’m not really sure what the secret is. A lot of growth is very random, even with a great strategy, unless you have a huge budget for advertisements or promotion.
If I had to guess, the biggest thing that’s helped me is just that I make a lot of content, and I’m online a lot, and that gives me more opportunities to be discovered or run into some luck with algorithms and such.
I’m trying to be a little more aware of marketing strategy and stuff now, but it didn’t start that way. I’ve always had a pretty hefty online presence, and to be totally honest that was true before I started music and it hasn’t really been a planned out or intentional thing — in high school one of my cousins unfollowed me on Instagram because I posted too much haha.
I grew up on the internet, it’s where I’ve felt the strongest sense of community for as long as I can remember, and I’m generally more comfortable and feel more like myself behind a screen, for better or worse.
I used to say the internet was my home, and I was mostly joking, but I think there’s still some truth to that. I guess as a side note, recently I gained a bunch of followers on Instagram by just reposting old videos I’d made for TikTok as Instagram Reels, so I guess there’s another tip — reuse everything. There’s this pressure that everything you do has to be new, but your old content doesn’t go anywhere. I know I said earlier I like to sort of put projects behind me and move on to the next thing, and that’s definitely true, but I guess I also try to look for ways to keep things alive even when it feels like their moment is over.
What’s been something you’ve learned over the years that has impacted the process of recording and releasing of Apples to Oranges, Dust to Dust?
Something I’ve learned is that there are always going to be highs and lows of making and releasing music. Similar to what I was saying a minute ago about reusing or just not giving up on old content, I try to put less pressure on whatever I’m currently working on.
Making stuff and putting it out there is so exciting, but then it inevitably slows down and it’s all a bit anticlimactic. Even if you meet a certain goal or something takes off a bit, at some point it feels like the wave has passed and it’s over. So there’s this feeling of “now or never” with everything you do, and there’s a little bit of truth to that, but I try not to get too focused on the timeline or trajectory of it all.
And I try to remind myself that music doesn’t die after its release cycle. It will always feel new to somebody. You don’t have to give up on it after a certain point. That’s not to say you should spend all your time trying to promote your entire discography — there are good reasons to focus on one project at a time — but I just wish there wasn’t that feeling from everybody of like “oh well, I guess it’s time to accept that this failed,” and I wish we didn’t have to collectively feel that sense of failure, because I don’t think there’s ever actually a point at which something like music has failed. So I tried to be mindful of highs and lows with Apples, I guess I’ve learned that if you can kind of anticipate that roller coaster, you’re less of a pawn and less at the whim of it all.
“Songwriting in a way feels like learning a language, and even though there’s always room to grow, I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve become fluent. There’s a lot of relief in that.”
Do you write with a different mind-set now than you did when you first started?
I’m sure my mindset has changed in a ton of ways, but I’m not sure if I can really pinpoint how. I think the biggest change has just been that I have more freedom. Songwriting in a way feels like learning a language, and even though there’s always room to grow, I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve become fluent. There’s a lot of relief in that.
Which song of yours is the most fun to perform?
From this album, if I don’t overthink it, I’d say Scrambling and Tryouts are probably the most fun. I’m writing a song called Loveless right now and honestly I’m having way too much fun with it.
Pretty much ever since I started writing, I’ve been trying to slow down — people tell me my songs are too wordy and in some ways I agree. I’ve always been told I talk a bit too fast, too. But I’m starting to wonder if fighting that is a losing battle, and for my next album I’ve decided to see what happens if I stop fighting the instinct to fit more words in, and to say them at the same pace they’re at in my head. And that to me makes them feel more natural and a lot more fun.
If you could collaborate with anyone at all, who would it be, and why?
This is really hard! The YouTubers I mentioned earlier (dodie, Tessa Violet, Orla Gartland) definitely come to mind. It would be very surreal, but I think I would get along well with them and I think it would be a good fit audience-wise. I also really love Billie Eilish’s work, and also Olivia Rodrigo — those are probably the two most popular of the artists I listen to, so of course it would be life-changing to have that connection and exposure.
In a more general sense, my siblings also come to mind. The three of us work well together and we have very compatible values and perspectives — they’re my best friends and they’ve always been my favorite people to work with. We’re actually in the midst of creating the second episode of Rabbits Under the Shed, an animated children’s musical that started as my senior project in college.
I met James Barrett the other day, he’s a really fantastic artist and also just a very kind person. He has a song called Yellow Paint — it was the first song of his I heard, and I was having a bit of a rough go at the time, and something about it hit me pretty hard haha. There’s this line “a new world waits while this one ends” and I love it so much. I was thinking about it a bit earlier when I was talking about finding purpose — I said “I only believe in optimism when it feels true” and this is a really powerful example of that for me.
This is getting a bit off topic now, but I don’t believe every ending is a new beginning. That saying has always bugged me, because it doesn’t hold space for the ending to be an ending. The new beginning comes after the ending — the two events are not one and the same. I do not want them to be. So I love that lyric because it allows the world to end, but still manages to make it feel okay.
It is very difficult and very important to differentiate “a world” from “the world.” I could go on but basically I like that lyric a lot because it makes space for a lot of complexity and it feels very true. Anyway I mention James Barrett because he’s someone else that I’d love to work with at some point.
What’s next for you?
I’ll definitely keep making music! I also recently launched a creative services and music licensing company with my cat Cléo, called “Clèo’s Collective.” I’ll be working as a sync agent for a music library I curate myself, and also managing basically a database of independent freelancers who offer music, art, or film-related skills and services remotely.
It’s a pretty overwhelming endeavor, and I’m just getting started, but I’m immensely excited to bring it to life and watch it grow.
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