Pick Your ‘Poison’: Nessa Barrett on Owning Her Darkness & Finding a Brighter Day With Debut EP ‘Pretty Poison’

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Eight months ago, Nessa Barrett tattooed “pretty poison” on the inside of her arm as a physical representation of her mental and emotional anguish. “I went through a phase where I got a lot of dark stuff tattooed on me,” the 19-year-old singer-songwriter tells Billboard. “I was really going through it mentally.”

The somewhat contradictory phrase has come to define Barrett’s existence as she’s grown from breakout TikTok sensation to charting, genre-bending musician: her life may look pretty from the outside, but the constant ridicule entangled with coming of age in the public eye has indeed been poisonous. 

Barrett used to harm her body, but once she left home for Los Angeles last summer, she identified tattoos as a healthier way to validate her pain. She acknowledges her impulsive tendencies, often feeling compelled toward something and discovering a deeper meaning for it later, and her tattoo was no exception. Now, with her debut EP — also called Pretty Poison, out Friday (Sept. 10, also World Suicide Prevention Day) via Warner Records — she is laying bare all of her scars for the first time.

“I’ve always been pretty quiet about everything that I’ve been thrown into when it comes to drama and how people perceive me,” Barrett says. “Pretty Poison really is a moment for me to be like, ‘No, you’re wrong. This is me, and this is what I’ve been through.’”

Barrett has shared glimpses of her journey before now, and each single gradually built her up in a way that eventually made her confident enough to really go there across Pretty Poison’s seven tracks. Weeks after landing in L.A. from her hometown of Galloway in southern New Jersey, determined to shed her TikTok shadow and fully pursue music, Barrett went to the studio and sat down at the piano. “Pain,” her debut single with Warner, poured out of her. 

“I decided to make it a basic piano ballad for a common reason that I literally can go any direction with my music after that, because it’s so basic,” she said last summer ahead of the single’s July 31, 2020, release. “Any artist can do a piano ballad. After ‘Pain,’ I realized that I wanted to be completely authentic and do the style I’ve always wanted to, which is a little bit darker and more edgy.”

Warner Records CEO and co-chairman Aaron Bay-Shuck and executive vice president of A&R Jeff Sosnow were intrigued by Barrett after seeing clips of her singing on TikTok, and they decided to sign her when they heard “Pain.” Barrett was immediately surrounded by a supportive infrastructure and dedicated team consisting of Bay-Schuck, Sosnow, Tom Corson as well as manager Bree Shepherd. They believed in her before she truly believed in herself.

“It was clear she was an artist whose voice would reach far beyond social media ecosystems,” says Sosnow. “In speaking with her in those initial meetings, it was clear she was very serious and focused and wildly determined to chase her dream and tell her story but also touch universal themes and speak for the voiceless.”

Last October’s haunting revenge breakup anthem “if u love me” foreshadowed that direction, but Barrett found her footing with February’s “la di die” featuring TikToker-turned-punk rocker jxdn, with drums and production by blink-182 icon Travis Barker. (jxdn, born Jaden Hossler, was Barker’s first DTA Records signing in May 2020.) The stark contrast between acoustics, Barker’s signature bashing and 808-infused beats in the hypnotic alt-pop smash symbolized the transition Barrett was enduring. Within months, Barrett had gone from stifling her truth on TikTok to exorcising her demons — “Hope someday I’ll find nirvana/ I’ll be looking down below/ I’ll be dead at twenty-seven/ Only nine more years to go/ I got a bully in my head” — on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. 

Pretty Poison lead single “i hope ur miserable until ur dead” found her pivoting yet again — this time using grungier soundscapes to declare independence from a toxic situation. It was even stickier than “la di die,” which had racked up 150 million streams and hit No. 27 at Top 40 radio. “Hope ur miserable” garnered 15 million first-week streams and earned Barrett her first-ever entry into Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at No. 88. The singles’ success confirmed that she wasn’t merely a TikTok star dallying in music on the side. Music was where she belonged.

“There was a moment right around the release of ‘la di die’ where I realized how crazy this moment was that we have an artist who had never had the opportunity to walk into our label — any label!” Sosnow remembers, incredulous at Barrett’s natural capability of capturing audiences and kicking down industry doors. “And she was a teenager! And it’s COVID!’”

Barrett has expressed frustration over the “difficult transition” in getting people to see her predominantly as a legitimate, mature recording artist post-TikTok, but that is a non-issue in the eyes of Larry Rudolph, the CEO of Barrett’s management firm ReignDeer Entertainment/Maverick. (Shepherd managing Barrett’s music career pre-dated Warner, but in 2020, she partnered ReignDeer and co-manages Barrett alongside Rudolph and ReignDeer President Jesse Peters.) He downplays any notion that she needs to “shed the influencer label” and emphasizes her surefire potential to trade URL fame for sold-out global arena tours IRL sooner than later.

“Nessa has that rare magic, plus she’s already done so much in such a short space of time,” Rudolph continues. “She’s already light years ahead of most artists who are only 18 months into their career. Nessa also has an undeniably unique perspective on her music and cares so much about her fan base. She’s got that superstar quality that I’ve always looked for throughout my career. It’s rare, but Nessa has got it.”

It took a long time, and it can be hard still, for Barrett to see the star within her.Music is Barrett’s most therapeutic outlet, but she credits actual therapy the most for her growth since receiving her borderline personality disorder diagnosis around her 18th birthday. Prior to that, she had been “misdiagnosed my entire life with multiple different illnesses” — the most consequential example of an unsettled adolescence.

Barrett struggled to fit in while growing up in Galloway. For one, she was Puerto Rican in a mostly affluent and white town. She was the only Hispanic kid, and felt like she was the one at her school living in an apartment with a single mother. Music had been a comforting presence from the beginning, however: As early as kindergarten, well before preteen bullying and self-consciousness, she wrote in notebooks and sang in choirs. (Before her parents’ split, her father even kept a studio in the home to cater to his own musical aspirations.) She wanted to be a singer more than anything, but her insecurities told her she couldn’t.

“I still get those thoughts to this day,” Barrett says. “I’ll wake up before I have to do something, or I’ll just be sitting in my bed, and I’m like, ‘God, I can’t do this. I can’t keep going. There’s no way. I’m not cut out to.’ But you have to shut that down. I think when you have a dream, it makes it easier to shut those types of thoughts down because you are striving to get a place.”

Originally, her dream appeared to be soccer. She competed nationwide with an academy team and trained for Division I by 14 years old. She did feel like an outcast as the muscular soccer player in a friend group filled with skinny cheerleaders, but she loved playing the sport, until eight concussions forced her to walk away. “I did actually want to go to college for soccer,” she reflected last summer. “As soon as I was told I could not play any sports anymore, I was bummed, but I knew that there was a reason that I just had other plans.”

Enter TikTok. She made an account in early 2019 as a senior in high school wanting to express herself in a fun way. She accrued a massive following that currently sits at 16.7 million with earnest, charismatic dance and lip-sync videos, and videos featuring her real singing voice especially struck a chord. She presented a bubbly and girly facade, but in real life, she was a tomboy who preferred wearing oversized clothes and exposing harsher realities. “I just acted like someone I wasn’t so I could gain approval from others and not be hated on as much,” she said last summer.

Unfortunately, that still didn’t protect her from incessant bullying on the platform. Barrett’s borderline personality disorder diagnosis, and the subsequent proper treatment for both BPD and an eating disorder, was the first step in unlocking these past traumas and clearly understanding them for what they were. I think the hardest thing about seeing so many people say certain things about you is it feeds that voice in your head,” she explains. “It gives it more credibility. You start to believe it even more. It just grows bigger and bigger. That’s the one thing that I’ve been working on in therapy for a while now, learning to shrink that voice. It’s difficult.”

Barrett’s therapist has given her exercises rating on a scale 1-to-10 how whatever has her down will affect her permanently, or writing down what her negative internal narrator says and responding to it with something positive. “Now that I know so much about borderline personality disorder, I know how to turn my weaknesses into strengths and transform my bad habits into good ones — which is becoming addicted to and really hyper-fixating on music, which has helped me a lot,” Barrett says. “Even when my emotional side is in control, I can be like, ‘OK, this is when I should go to the studio,’ because I know that is the only thing that’s gonna help me.”

And that’s exactly what she did this spring.

Pretty Poison was a lifetime in the making, but was written and recorded over just two weeks in late spring. Six months ago, Warner connected Barrett with Toronto-based producer Evan Blair, and after they seamlessly collaborated on Barrett’s glitchy pop single “counting crimes,” it became undeniably evident that he would round out the one-two punch needed for Barrett to create her most honest songs to date. Blair flew to L.A., and they locked themselves in a studio called Noise Nest. 

It was a perfect pairing at the perfect time. Barrett carried a lot with her into the studio. Looking back, she describes that time as the period she “struggled with mental health the most” and felt “the most suicidal ever.” She was ready to confront all of the drama and trauma from the last two years that she hadn’t yet written about or vocalized. Blair, 29, had previously toured as a DJ under the stage name Charlie Darker before getting sober and transitioning into a producer for hitmaking artists like Diplo, Steve Aoki, MAX, Bryce Vine and Zedd. Now, he was itching to sink his teeth into a fully conceptualized project for the first time.

“On the first day, she came in and sat down with me. It was actually our first time meeting in person,” recalls Blair, who’d ultimately take on executive producer duties for Pretty Poison. “We’d only hung out over FaceTime. And she just poured out all these deeply personal things, which for me, as a writer and producer, is so valuable. There was never a lack of something to say.”

Barrett had Blair watch films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Death Becomes Her to better understand her vision — “it’s really her taste that makes her such a special artist to work with” and he paired those influences with sonic palettes inspired by Radiohead and The Neighbourhood. While “la di die” put her firmly in the pop-punk/punk rock lane, she was not interested in staying there. She had let the outside world confine her for far too long. “I’m not one to be put in a box,” she says. “I tend to change a lot, hence my BPD. I kind of want to be categorized in every group.”

Plus, as Blair puts it, “Nessa doesn’t really want to be like anybody else.”

“I think that Nessa is, in a lot of ways, an old soul,” the producer reasons. “People will be very impressed with her as an artist in the truest sense of the word, and impressed by her ability to carve out her own lane. Because it’s really not part of the scene that she really easily could’ve participated in and surfed the wave of a little bit — she made a really conscious decision to do her thing, and it’s really not what her peers are doing.”

Pretty Poison will surprise anyone who expects to hear seven “la di die” duplicates. An overarching dark tone persists, but no two tracks are the same, and the EP as a whole doesn’t fit under any one genre’s umbrella. From cinematic soundscapes to arpeggiated or reverb-heavy guitars, punctuating drums to vintage tape effects, Barrett proves herself equally adept at crafting evocative music and delivering honest, powerful lyrics.

Emboldened by newfound confidence in her voice and by newfound love in her relationship with jxdn, which blossomed around “la di die,” Barrett dug the deepest she had ever dared. “The reason I write music is to cope,” she says. “It’s not even a job for me; it’s therapy. This EP was really just a huge coping session that I had.” Pretty Poison’s tracklist walks listeners through Barrett’s healing process. The title track finds Barrett calling out “everyone who has watched me and commented and judged me” on social media — crooning, “I’m in your veins like pretty poison” to reclaim control.  On “Grave,” which Blair nods to as the project’s crowning achievement, she shamelessly professes her love for jxdn, “the only thing keeping me out of the grave.” (“He literally saved me from my rock bottom,” Barrett gushes.)

As blissful as Barrett feels with Hossler, it’s the brutally gloomy “Scare Myself” she says felt the best getting off her chest. “It was one of the first times where I’m actually coming face to face lyrically with what I actually deal with,” she explains, referencing her BPD and the unpredictability of her mind. “That was the most truthful song that I’ve ever created, and it hurt.”

The serene one-minute outro “Sincerely” meets Barrett on the other side, in the present. “I admit that I was scared as hell,” she sings softly. “Of the things that I might do to myself / But now I’m happy.” The closing lines are provided by an audio recording of Barrett’s mother saying she’s so happy to see her daughter finally happy.

“The biggest thing that I think I wanted to portray with my EP is the fact that the bad times never last as long as they seem they’re going to,” Barrett says. “Our minds play a game on us and trick us into believing the darkest moments in our lives are forever and there’s no coming back, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. The best things in life take time.”

It isn’t coincidental that Pretty Poison drops on World Suicide Prevention Day. Barrett always knew she wanted to pick a special day to unveil her first significant body of work, but one year ago, she wouldn’t have chosen this date. She needed to have her happy ending — or at least a happy ending to that chapter of her life — in order to feel right about associating her music with suicide prevention.

“There’s been so many times where I have tried, thought about it, cried about it, but I didn’t do it, and now I’m here writing about happy things,” Barrett reflects. “I’ve never really done that before, but I am. I love that it comes out on World Suicide Prevention Day — to show that there’s faith behind everything and that everyone is able to be happy whenever it’s right for them.”

Rudolph isn’t surprised that Barrett is executing her original goal of using music as a microphone for spreading mental health awareness. There are a lot of young adults out there who are dealing with a lot of s–t,” he says. “I believe they listen to Nessa’s music and feel better that they are not alone. That there is someone out there who has issues just like they do and is brave enough to speak and sing loudly about them. Nessa is a true contemporary role model and an inspiration with what she gives of herself.”

For the first time in her life, Barrett feels excited. She is able to look forward to her first-ever headlining live shows L.A.’s Moroccan Lounge on Nov. 5 and New York City’s Baby’s All Right on Nov. 15 and work on her debut full-length studio album without her usual anxiety. But most importantly, she can look back on her past struggles through an appreciative lens, because she knows in her heart that she is strong enough to get through anything.

“Your mind tricks you into thinking that death is the only answer, but it’s not,” she says. “It’s the easy way out, unfortunately, but when you keep pushing through, life holds so many good things. I just can’t wait for the moment where everyone that relates to my music finds that out for themselves. I just want people to listen to this EP as if it’s theirs.”

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