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3 Up-and-Coming Gen Z Artists on Loving Yourself, Making Music During a Pandemic, and Growing Up | KeKe Magazine

Generation Z, known as Gen Z for short, is growing up. 

Over the last few years, the kids of Gen Z have risen to recognition, as they become teenagers and adults. Activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai are Gen Z, and musicians have exploded into pop culture with massive songs that are defining a new era like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. According to Pew Research Center, Gen Z is more diverse than previous generations and just might become the most well-educated generation than ever before. Evidence of that has already become clear, with the examples that Gen Z has set when it comes to being socially conscious and involved in world issues. Gen Z has access to more information at the tips of their fingers than any other generation has before. Many can’t even remember a time before smartphones or at least have a vague memory of it, fuzzy like the beginning of a VHS tape they watched as a toddler. 

When it comes to the music industry, Gen Z artists are facing a landscape that’s much different than even a few years ago, when young artists like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus were still carving out their paths. The music industry has evolved alongside technology since the days of YouTube covers and casual uploads, with the ability now for apps like TikTok to blow up a song in a short, digestible format. Gone are the days of radio being the end-all-be-all looming over the music industry. 

And not to mention, this wave of Gen Z artists is emerging during a global pandemic. For many artists, 2020 gave them the space to explore their craft and launch their careers. While 2020 was devastating in many ways, what it did bring was a lot more idle ears for new music. 

Enter new artists Gwyn Love, Madisyn Gifford, and Sophie Powers. Each uniquely fresh artist in their own individual rights, the other thing that sets them apart and also ties them together is their never-before-seen entrance into music during a time that has shut down many facets of the music industry. In the past, it probably would have been near impossible during a time like this, but in today’s landscape of streaming and social media, music is always readily available and the avenues into the music industry are only expanding. 

On her newest single, “Nice Things,” Madisyn Gifford pokes fun at herself over its two and a half minutes. When I asked if that ability to laugh at herself and celebrate her quirks comes easily, she said, “I would say, for the most part, yes, I’ve always been the type of person who doesn’t take themselves too seriously! I was made fun of quite a bit growing up so I learned young that if you accept your quirks and laugh along with people or are sometimes even the first to the punchline then their words don’t hurt as much, or at least [don’t] hold quite as much power over you.” 

At 21 years old, Madisyn’s teenage years are barely in the rearview, but her lyricism and vocals present someone with the energy of wisdom beyond her years. With that, she’s accumulated over 235,000 streams and 675,000 views on YouTube since her debut single. Earlier this year, she released an EP, Learning to Exist, which was an excellent expedition through heartbreak and coming into adulthood. Sonically, the music supported her old-soul-type voice, and the songs burrow their way right into your heart. 

“Lyrics have always been the most important part for me when it comes to my music because I have always had such a love for words! … When I was younger, before I started writing music if you asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say I wanted to be an author or a singer and now in a way, I feel like I kind of get to do both. Telling stories and putting my life down into words has always been my biggest passion,” she said. 

In a similar vein, singer Gwyn Love is going through the transition into adulthood as they navigate music, moving across the country, and songwriting. Their debut EP, At First Blush, was also a coming-of-age story in its own right from an artist who grew up in small-town America. To them, the phrase coming-of-age means “the transition of being a teenager to being an adult. The experiences along the way, discovering myself, learning how to do life on my own without anyone telling me who to be or what to do. It’s a process of discovering your true self and who you are without anyone else’s opinions weighing you down.” 

Hailing from small-town Oklahoma, their path to music has been a bit unconventional. Born into a conservative family with eight siblings, they grew up with music but never felt like she totally fit in. Fast forward to 2019, and Gwyn connected with Jonathan Simkin at 604 Records and became the first American signed to the Canadian label. 

Most recently, they released the single “cali,” which is a light, airy celebration of what it’s like to find a home in a place that accepts you for who you are and brings you joy. On writing the song, they said, “Writing ‘cali’ came so naturally to me. It started with the phrase ‘I’d be fine if I never saw another snowfall for the rest of my days.’ I was like ‘yup, I feel a song coming,’ and sat down at the piano. Probably wrote the first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus within an hour. I try not to let myself overthink things and just go with the flow and what feels right when it comes to writing songs.” “cali” creates a sense of escapism for the kids who grow up in the small towns where they feel like the outsider, even though it raises them into who they are in many ways. It’s a declaration of hope for the dreamers who long to move to another city and find a new home.  

Just like Sophie and Madisyn, Gwyn’s lyrics are unshakably honest, wrapped in electropop that brings dreamy vibes and a neon palette to mind. While being an artist often requires extreme vulnerability to hook an audience, what sets these three artists apart is how easily it seems to come. Their music doesn’t feel unnatural, but rather completely refreshing and admirably nonchalant. 

I spoke with Madisyn, Sophie, and Gwyn about all things inspiration, growing up, entering the industry during a pandemic, and learning how to love who you are. 

KEKE MAGAZINE: As artists and fans, first concerts are hallmarks in our lives. What was your first concert and how do you think it impacted you as an artist or set the tone for your future career?

MADISYN GIFFORD: My first concert was a Sarah McLachlan concert that my mom took me to when I was around 6 and it literally changed my whole life. Not only was Sarah McLachlan a huge influence and inspiration for me growing up (I would fall asleep to CDs of her music my dad burned for me every night as a kid) but it was there watching her on stage that I fell in love with the idea of performing.

SOPHIE POWERS: Bruce Springsteen was the first concert I ever saw and I remember it being one of the best nights of my life. I danced the whole night until the very end and that experience definitely impacted me in many ways. I’m not sure if it set the tone for my future career, but it continued my love for performing, that’s for sure. If I’m being honest I’m an attention junkie and I got so much attention from strangers for my dance moves at that concert (I was 8) that I genuinely think I just wanted that every moment of my life afterward. 

GWYN LOVE: I saw the Jonas Brothers when I was 12, but I wasn’t a huge fan at the time, my older sister was. The first concert that left a huge impact was seeing Taylor Swift for the first time and just how entertaining she was and confident. I was thinking “I wanna be up there someday.”

KM: Madisyn, “Nice Things” really made me reflect on self-love. What has your journey been like when it comes to loving and accepting yourself for who you are? What’s been your biggest struggle and greatest moment when it comes to self-love?

MG: Self-love is definitely a daily battle for me the same as I think it is for everyone else, and for me, self-acceptance definitely comes and goes in waves. As I’ve gotten older though I’ve understood the importance of trying not to ever place your value in the opinion of others, and it’s in times that I really understand and incorporate that concept into my life that I think I truly love myself the most.

KM: Can you tell us about what it was like working with your collaborators Tavish Crowe and Colin Janz? What was the creation process like?

MG: This song was so much fun to make, I had the best time working with Colin and Tavish on it! I originally wrote the song with Tavish and I basically came into the session saying that I wanted to write a song completely making fun of myself that would kind of take the power back from a person who at one point would put me down a lot, and also make the people in my life laugh and I think we did just that. I always have the best time writing with Tavish, he has such an ear for cool pop melodies and I always learn so much from him! After writing it I brought the song to Colin Janz for production and he totally read my mind with what direction I wanted the track to go in! I literally squealed out loud in the backseat of my Uber the first time I heard it because I was so excited about what he did with it! They totally brought this song to life and I am beyond happy with it!

KM: Who are some artists you each consider to be part of your musical mosaic — the artists who’ve influenced you most throughout your life?

MG: Honestly, there are so many that it’s really hard to pinpoint it to a few but if I had to pick a top 5 it would probably be Ani Difranco, Sarah McLachlan, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, and Stevie Nicks.

SP: The top 3 artists I’d say who have influenced me would be Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, and Kurt Cobain. Avril and Gaga I grew up listening to, being born in 2004, and Kurt I grew up hearing from my Dad but I really took a liking to at the beginning of high school. All of them are so different from one another but are so talented and respectable, having written a lot of their own songs. I like them for more than their songwriting skills though, as watching interviews and how they brand themselves has really been interesting for me. They also are never doing the same thing, which I love because my own music and art are always going to be changing, and knowing their art was also always changing but that people still supported them is very comforting.

GL: Taylor Swift was a big one at first. Then I really was inspired by the pop-punk era – bands like Marianas Trench, All Time Low, The Maine, The Summer Set, etc.

KM: Sophie, I know that Avril Lavigne is someone you’re influenced by and you also had an amazing collaboration with Kellin Quinn. Who else gives you inspiration? What about that era of 2000s pop-punk speaks to you?

SP: Avril, Nirvana, Green Day, and The Descendants are a few of the artists that I draw inspiration from for sure. I think I’m naturally drawn to their sound because it’s so unapologetically themselves. That’s what I want to be and sound like as an artist. Unapologetic, honest, and direct with my lyrics and songs. 2000s pop-punk lyrics are brutally honest and direct which really makes the era speak to me. But the 2000s pop-punk era also speaks to me because with all the heavy lyrics and crashing guitars, the songs are still fun and enjoyable. Listening to punk made me realize a song can be so dark and heavy but at the same time light as a feather. My fascination with punk music stems from that realization.

KM: Do you think your generation is bringing back grunge and punk? What would you like to see from your generation of up-and-coming artists? And what would you like to bring to music as Sophie Powers?

SP: I definitely think my generation is bringing back grunge and punk in our own way. Artists like Machine Gun Kelly and Yungblud can prove that. I want to see more female up-and-coming punk/grunge artists in the spotlight. As an artist myself, however, I want to shed a spotlight on mental health and be as honest and open as I can be with my lyrics. I think my brutal honesty can encourage others to be more honest with themselves, asking for help when it’s needed and honestly expressing their emotions to others. We live in a society where so much feels fake with the internet and relationships and beauty standards, etc. I just want to be a source of realness for people.

KM: Gwyn, based on the lyrics and video of “cali” it seems like you definitely grew up with that dream of finding a more accepting place to live in. Do you feel like the place you come from has played a big part in shaping you as an artist, even when it felt like it wasn’t home?

GL: Oh, for sure Oklahoma has shaped me in many ways and honestly has helped me discover my true self. I’m very thankful for all the values I have learned being born and raised in Oklahoma, although it has never felt like my home and I’ve never felt like I belonged [there]. It takes a lot of courage to be yourself around a lot of people who do not think the same way you do, [and] I’m thankful to have developed that courage.

KM: In the same vein, do you think coming from a place like Oklahoma gave you more motivation to chase your dreams when people pushed back? How did your career begin?

GL: Living in Oklahoma has put so much drive within me that I don’t think would be there had I grown up in a big city. I’ve had so many people doubt me and say there’s no way I’m going anywhere coming from Oklahoma. That just makes me want to do it more. I’ve been writing songs my whole life and decided to go to college for music in Oklahoma City. I managed to connect with Jonathan Simkin from 604 Records and well.. you know the rest.

KM: Sophie, how has Toronto shaped you as an artist? Does a sense of place play a role in your musical style and influence? For example, I love how the backstory of riding the subway ties into “Life Goes On!!”.

Toronto definitely has shaped me as an artist. In both good and bad ways. Toronto is such a diverse and bright city, I was surrounded by lots of different cultures and musical genres from a young age. My dad was a musician and is very musical, and my mom loves music even though she is tone-deaf hahaha so that impacted my music tastes as I heard Pink Floyd [and] The Grateful Dead (Mom’s favorites) to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC (Dad’s favorites) on the radio growing up. But I also heard reggae, pop, and classical music from the city itself. For example, I have Toronto rap, R&B, rock, and electronic music all on one playlist. If that doesn’t show Toronto pride I don’t know what does.

KM: And Madisyn, I read that you were a competitive dancer! How did growing up dancing inform you musically? 

MG: Dancing had one of the biggest impacts on my life and I definitely would not be the person or the artist that I am today without having that in my life! I have always loved music and the stories it tells so much and dance for me just became another facet of storytelling. I don’t know if I expected growing up to be doing what I am today, but I definitely always knew I would be doing something in the arts because performing and expressing myself has always been such a core part of what makes me who I am.

KM: As Gen Z artists who are a part of the next generation of young musicians, what do you think about the music landscape you’re entering? We’re kind of in the age of TikTok and other socials having a huge impact on the music industry. Do you take that into consideration when you’re creating? 

MG: I honestly try not to take that into consideration and just write for no one but myself. Whenever I try to do anything other than that in my writing it really doesn’t work and being genuinely who I am in my music is more important to me than anything else. If I happen to write something that I think would be really digestible and work well on those platforms, then great! If I don’t, then that’s also great!

SP: I have to take TikTok into consideration when I’m creating music to a certain extent, otherwise, my music won’t transfer. TikTok feels like the new radio nowadays, but I try to not center my entire music-making process around the idea of a quick “TikTok hit.” Trends cycle in and out every few days and capturing trends and getting content is part of the game. It’s not as fun as playing/making music but you still have to participate. I’m excited about it though because there is a lot of opportunity for artists like me to grow through TikTok and social media in general!

GL: I do, but I’m trying not to as much. I want to write a song that blows up of course, but I also want it to feel genuine to me. The pressure that social media adds to the industry can be very exhausting at times. I write to get feelings out and express myself and because it’s fun! If I think about it too much it can add some pressure that almost makes it feel like a chore for me personally.

KM: There’s a trend on TikTok right now where people are kind of having a conversation with their younger self, showing how far they’ve come in life or in a career. You’re each so very unique, and bold, and creative. So for all the young girls out there reading this and dreaming, or for your younger selves, what advice would you give? How would you define being true to yourself?

MG: Honestly my biggest advice for anyone younger than me, or honestly the same age as me, would be to remember that this season of your life is just that, a season. Everything about the landscape of your life and your mindset is going to completely change time and time again so just let moments be moments and have faith that you are being led to exactly where you are meant to go.

SP: I’d say the best advice that helped me was remembering people’s actions are a reflection of themselves and not their feelings towards me. That sentence saved me from getting hurt a lot, as people can be brutal online and typing mean comments to a screen. And if I were to define being true to yourself, I would say that: being true to yourself is sitting down and asking yourself “who am I?” Forget how others appear to you, how do you appear to yourself? It sounds simple but it really is a very deep question. These things helped me a lot to discover my sound in music and discover myself in life.  

GL: One piece of advice I wish I had truly grasped while I was young is “you can’t control how people perceive you.” I feel I spent a lot of time worrying about what people thought about me and if they liked me, but as I’ve grown I’ve realized I have no control over that. “You are what you love, not who loves you.” That’s a good thing to remember in being true to yourself.

KM: What do you think of the future of live music after going through the pandemic? Have any of you gotten to perform live since releasing music?

MG: I am so beyond excited to get back on stage and have the opportunity to perform all of the music I have released over the past year! Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten the opportunity to perform this year since things have been opening back up, but I am so ready to! I think live music is such an important thing and I’m so excited to be a part of that again!

SP: I think there will be more virtual performances. I’ve done one live performance pre-recorded for a news network, but my career literally started during the pandemic, so I haven’t had the chance to perform in front of a crowd. I’m familiar with the experience of performing from my past in musical theatre and music camp, but it still isn’t the same as performing in front of my own live audience. I’m very excited to get on stage!! 

GL: I haven’t got to yet, but I’ve been to a couple of live shows since. I plan on performing some low-key acoustic sets this fall and I’m pretty stoked for that.

KM: What’s next for each of you that we can look forward to?

MG: More music! I have an album coming out early next year that I am so excited to share and I’m also still writing every single day. I’ve never been as proud of anything as I am of the album that I created and I am so, so excited to finally share it with the world! I swear it’s all I’ve been thinking about, honestly for the past year!

SP: I’m releasing a few more singles which showcase more of my artistry, alluding to an EP that I’m dropping later this year. I hope to tour or perform after that!! I’m still new to the scene but it finally feels like I’ve got the ball rolling with this single, so stay tuned for my next in September! 

GL: I have a single coming out in September and an album coming later this fall!