Mallory Merk is a Bona Fide, Modern Muse

Mallory Merk is a Bona Fide, Modern Muse

The music and modeling prodigy gets real in an exclusive interview with V.

The music and modeling prodigy gets real in an exclusive interview with V.

Text: Tess Garcia

Mallory Merk had just returned from Philadelphia when she walked into our office, Cha Cha Matcha latte in hand. She’d run into Frank Ocean there, she explained, and was given the drink for free as a result. For any other 17-year-old, being gifted coffee in the company of a musical icon probably sounds too good to be true. For Merk, it’s just another day in the life. 

Born in Louisiana and raised in New Jersey, the teenage wunderkind first rose to fame after appearing in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 2 zine at the age of 14. Three years later, Merk has amassed several magazine features, become a muse to Pat McGrath, and starred in Fenty Beauty’s first campaign. She unveiled her first EP, MM & Hh, in August of 2016. Her sophomore project, 111 Reasons, dropped this afternoon. 

The songstress and model spoke to V about the new release, her spirituality, and Rihanna’s obsession with her signature orange bangs. 

What were you doing in Philly?

My boyfriend had a show and my band also was playing a show in the same area. I couldn’t make it to both [laughs], but Herrick & Hooley were playing a show in Philly. My boyfriend’s stage name is The Khan, K-H-A-N. But yeah, they performed at Voltage Lounge. I performed there once before, so it was cool. It was nice to be in Philly, I love Philly. I’m trying to scope out places to do performances for my upcoming project. I’m trying to see where I want to go because all my friends are planning tours and doing everything on their own and it’s just so inspiring, so I’m like, I want to hop on the bandwagon of doing tours on my own, just seeing where my fans are and go, go, go wherever I need to go. 

Sweet. Jumping right in, I have to ask about Fenty Beauty. Do you remember the moment when you got the call to star in their campaign?

Yeah, I got an email. My mom, who’s my manager, got an email and she was like, “You’ve been asked to do Fenty Beauty,” and I’m like, “What is that?”. I’d heard of Fenty Puma, but Fenty Beauty, I was like, “Is she about to do makeup?”. My manager was like, “Yes, but don’t go run and tell anybody, keep it quiet.” So I did, but I was like, oh my god, Rihanna’s about to do makeup? She’s gonna own the makeup world [laughs]. Everybody loves her and she’s so beautiful. Everybody always wants to know, like, how do you look like this? [Laughs] Like, we want to look just a little bit like you or have somewhat of an essence of you. So yeah, I remember. It was like, I didn’t expect it. I was like, wow. I was floored. 

What was it like being on set for the campaign?

It was really chill and simple. It was like a family environment. They had a lot of food [laughs] and Rihanna’s mom was there, so it was pretty relaxed. It was in LA, that was one of my first times in LA doing work. I had been just to visit, but I had never gone to do work that much, so I was excited. It felt like a special vacation or something. Yeah, it was me, Duckie [Thot], Slick [Woods], Leomie [Anderson]. I met some new girls there, it was fun. Rihanna let us, she had face charts out, so we were playing with the colors and the makeup. She was like, “What do you guys like best?”. She had us sit at the table and had us draw our own shades of the faces and the colors and stuff, so she let us do what we wanted. She seemed really specific about each girl. She kind of already knew their aesthetic and she kind of had pointers for each girl, like, “Oh, make sure her hair is to the side because that’s how I like it best.” You could tell she took a liking to each model in a different way for their own unique reasons, so that was cool. It wasn’t just like a regular shoot. 

Did she have any specific pointers for you?

Yeah, she liked my bang. When my hair was shorter — my hair is so long now — I usually had, like, a bang, like a swooping bang kind of thing. I would move it, kind of shake it out of my face or something, and she’d be like, “No, put the bang back in your face.” She’d be like, “Move the bang, move the bang” [laughs]. It was all about the bang, so that was her thing for me. And the lip gloss and the pink cheeks. She was like, “I like the pink cheeks on her ’cause she’s a ginger” [laughs], so she was like, “Make the pink cheeks, pinker, pinker.” It was so cute. 

Moving to your music, how would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard it?

[Claps hands] This is a difficult question. I would describe it as, my lyrics can be heavy, like, they’re a lot to listen to because when I write, it’s almost like I’m not thinking about the song. I’m just thinking about, what’s the message? I write words based off rhythm, I don’t write them based off melody necessarily. I started off writing poetry, so it was like, my music is a lot, it can be wordy. I think you have to listen to it more than once to hear the words and really understand what I’m saying. That sets me apart, I think, because someone just, they write R&B music or pop music, which is kind of my genre, they write it to make a sound, to make a song. And also, I like using my voice to make soundscapes, like harmonies and vocal sounds, different sounds that the voice can make. I like doing that, so it’s like, when I make a track, I would describe it as layered, ominous. I like ominous type beats — dark, but still catchy and you can bop to it. I don’t know, my music, it can be two things. It can be instrumental or it can be pretty produced, it can be electronic-y, so it depends. But I feel like my voice, I would say it’s more R&B, pop-influenced, definitely. 

Would you say your strong sense of spirituality has impacted your music in any way? 

Yeah, it definitely has. This past year, I’ve had a lot of realizations, just about myself and about my purpose and my music’s purpose. I think this year I’m just working on letting that out. My spirituality is definitely a big key in that because even when I’m feeling down or I feel like I’m stuck, I can’t write anything or I can’t make anything happen, something reminds me, like, my spirit guide, something reminds me that I’m here for a reason and that I have to continue, I have to keep going. I have to put my music out because that’s the only way I’m gonna communicate my message. I struggle a lot with communicating over social media, even in person. People will meet me and they get — not even a wrong impression, but I’m shy sometimes. I’m working on opening up, but it’s like, my spirituality reminds me that it’s OK to be myself and it’s OK to put it in words because music is my highest form of communication. It’s the only way I really know how to communicate, so my spirituality definitely plays a big part in that. It also helps me make sense of what I’m going through, make sense of why I need to go through this emotional period or I need to feel these feelings, or I need to put these feelings aside for right now, I need to not focus on the bad things and focus on the good things, focus on what I need to do. When you’re sad or when you’re down, the only way you can change that is action, doing anything, writing it out or even just going outside and just doing something to move yourself forward or to get moving. That’s what I use my spirituality for. I know I’m connected to the entire world. I’m connected to every human, every person, everything, so it’s like, knowing that calms my anxiety, knowing that I have a place here and that everyone else has their place and we all can get along and just move forward. When I pray or meditate, I never get the answer to just be still and do nothing. You can be still in the mind. That’s what peace is, being calm and just accepting things and letting things flow and not having judgements or opinions, but, you know, that’s not everyone’s reality. You can be still in the mind and just accept things that come to you, but don’t be still with your actions and what you’re doing on a day to day basis. Be active. Be fluid. Do what you feel is what you’ve gotta do for that day. If you feel like you want to get up and run a mile, just do it, you know?

Well-said. Do you have any particular musical role models?

Definitely. I love Michael Jackson, Prince, just, like, classics. Then female artists that I really like, that really influence me, I like Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, I like them. Joan Jett, I like her a lot. What’s her name? Carole King. [Laughs] I listened to a lot of Carole King growing up. I really like her melodies and her songs. They make me feel inspired. And then from just listening to music, I love rock music and I love hip hop. I don’t know, I love lyrical hip hop, as well as R&B mixed with hip hop. I love tracks like that, like, old-school, where it’ll be a girl and a boy, a girl singing and a boy rapping or whatever, vice versa. I love tracks that have singing and rapping. That’s probably my favorite. I really liked TLC, growing up, a lot. I was obsessed with them, and then, I don’t know, Brandy, even Amy Winehouse. I really, really liked Amy Winehouse growing up, so it was like that. I love female edgy R&B.

Do you have any fashion role models? Rihanna, obviously. 

Yeah, Rihanna. Hm, fashion…I’m inspired by myself, really. I just see stuff and I’m like, I like that, I want it, or I might even see something and I’ll just emulate it in my own way. I’m inspired by old New York style a lot. I like flash stuff, like big jackets, bomber jackets, and belts, B.B. belts, and chains and baggy jeans and boots. I love that. I guess style icons, for me, Aaliyah is a style icon, like a big style icon. I really loved her style. Honestly, girls in the ’90s had the best style. Left Eye’s style was really good. Lil’ Kim, her style was so good, like, I loved all her fashion. People were just dressing really, really like whatever they wanted. Who was it? It was, like, Justin Timberlake and…

Britney Spears!

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears with the denim, yeah. Even Britney Spears was flexing back in the day, Justin Timberlake was flexing. I really like Y2K style, too. I like sweatpants and hoops, and lip gloss is a must. I like wearing a lot of jewelry, too. Sometimes, I just throw on a random outfit. I’m really inspired by jewelry. I really love jewelry because there’s so many different kinds. From culture to culture, there’s so much different jewelry. 

Going back to music, what was your inspiration for 111 Reasons?

Well, the producers on there definitely inspired me. There’s one producer, Davaughn, on there. He did “Emeraldz,” and then he did two other songs on there. He produces for a lot of big artists. That was one of the first producers I worked with that have really just, like, clean, nice production that could be on the radio. For me, I don’t necessarily make radio hits, so working with those beats opened a whole new door. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted over them. It was like even if I said two words, the song would be good because the beat created a whole world in my head. His beats are kind of ominous a little bit and they’re the more bass-influenced tracks on there, with, like, a knocking bass line, which inspired me to work on my penmanship just to match the aggressiveness of the music, so that was inspiring, definitely. I was on my own in LA, so I didn’t have nobody distracting me when I was in the studio. I didn’t have people, and I didn’t care about what anyone thought because there was nobody there to listen to my music when I was done with it. It was just, like, me, my mom [laughs], you know?

She seems amazing. 

Yeah [laughs]. I love my mom. It was just us, so I was just making stuff that was true to me. That inspired me to be as dark as I wanted to. It wasn’t necessarily like I wanted to write dark music. It was just, like, it comes out. Because when I write, I feel like something’s coming through me. I kind of go into a daze for a minute and I just write something. I might go back to it and be like, “Whoa, how did I say that so perfectly? How did I get that feeling into one phrase?”. It’s like something else that’s writing it for me, something inside of me that just jumps out. That was inspiring, for me to just be able to go. And then Herrick and Hooley, they’re on two songs, but one of them, Ian, is on a feature singing the vocals. That was cool. And I think even the beats that I chose that Hunter produced were, like, new for him, too. He told me that these beats I used, he didn’t expect me to use them. He was kind of like, “I’m excited to hear what you do,” so now that they’re finished, I’m just kind of proud of myself that this is something kind of new. But then, I also, in the process, I made some new, like, classic songs that are gonna be released after the project. Every once in a while, you write a song, like “Riverflow,” to me, that’s on the project, is one of those really classic songs. It’s more slow and more from the heart, but I always end up writing a song like that. Every couple weeks, I’ll write a song where it’s just, like, slow and beautiful and just heartfelt. People need to hear that, too, so there’s gonna be another wave of that music after this project, but this project, it was just real. 

What do you hope listeners get out of this project? 

I hope they get a feel for what I can do, I guess. I hope they just get excited for what’s coming in the future. Also, I hope they can find a little world in the project like I did. I feel like it’s a little escape from the time period, even. The songs on there are pretty timeless. They might remind some people of certain times in their life, at least for my older audience. I feel like it’ll give them timeless vibes. The last song on there, “Blind,” is like, it really reminds me of a classic R&B song, like, on the beach, Cîroc bottles, all white outfit, singing to the sun. I want people to just be really excited, like, “Whoa, I didn’t know she could do this.” Well, actually, I feel like people know that I can do that because my personality is pretty — people, they get a sense of me pretty quickly, so I want my music to match that because some people, they listen to MM & Hh and they come up to me like, “This is you? Wow, this is really beautiful,” but I’m like, “What, you don’t think I’m pretty?” [laughs]. But I am, they just think I’m a little bit more aggressive or I would just be saying more because I have a lot to say about a lot of different things. I just want people to be like, “Ah, the music, finally. It speaks for her.” 

Do you have a favorite song on 111 Reasons?

I would say my favorite upbeat song on there, I think, would be “Imperfect.” It’s the first track off the whole thing. It’s like the most upbeat song, probably, off the whole project. It reminds me of shooting stars and it’s just about being in love but still being imperfect and that person still likes you, but you may not be all the way there with yourself. That person helps you feel that way. I like that song a lot. It’s very pop-y, but it’s still timeless because it has this one key in it that just goes back and forth from two notes through the whole song. It really sounds like a shooting star. It sounds like a shooting star lands, and then it starts again, and it lands, then it starts again. I just like that feeling that it gives me, it makes me feel like I’m in space [laughs]. It’s gonna be really great. 

Why the number 111 for the title?

It just reminds me I’m on the right track. Whenever I see 111, I might stop seeing it for a couple days or something, but then I’ll see it again and that just means I’m doing something right with my karma. I’m doing something positive to positively push myself forward. Sometimes, as humans, we do stuff out of pride that just sets us back a million steps, so 111 is just, it reminds me that my pride is — I have big pride, I’m a Leo — but 111 reminds me to put my pride to the side sometimes and that I’m on the right track, and to just keep listening to the world around me. That’s basically what it means to me, so 111 Reasons is basically like, there’s 11 songs. In those 11 songs, there’s probably 111 reasons why you should listen to yourself, why you should love yourself, and just 111 reasons why it’s OK to be you, 111 reasons why I’m still here, you know?

What advice would you give to other young musicians?

The advice I would give is to not worry about followers. Don’t worry about people accepting you because that is superficial. You can be an artist and you can turn your artistry into an entrepreneurship, but you can’t do that until you cross the line of, like, “I’m doing this art not for me, I’m doing it for the world. This isn’t a personal journey. It’s a journey with communicating my music to the world.” I guess I want young people to know that they shouldn’t judge themselves for anything that they make or anything that they think. I just say let it go, get it out, be as creative as you can because when you’re young, if you manifest your creativity now, you won’t struggle to access it later. You won’t struggle to fit in and you won’t struggle to feel like you have a place in the world if you exercise your creativity when you’re young. Then you grow up and everything you do becomes a decision of creativity. Everything becomes, “Do I do the right thing or do I do what’s gonna make me happy for right now?”. That’s a decision of creativity. You could create your own reality.

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