While women may on the surface appear to have the same legal rights as men, there are still endless things women can’t do in modern society — like interact with strangers without fearing for their safety, or live free from men’s expectations. In real life, that is. But in songs, they can do anything. On her debut album Girls Like Me, Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and producer Nyssa exploits the freedom afforded by music to help listeners imagine a more egalitarian world.
Sung with dramatic ’80s-esque vocals against triumphant guitar riffs inspired by Bruce Springsteen, the LP centers on fictional characters Nyssa created to represent certain concepts. Several of the characters, whose names start with the common letter J to designate an “every man” or “every woman,” are women doing things real-world women aren’t permitted to do.
The opening track “Hey Jackie,” for instance, centers on a female hitchhiker. After an intro reminiscent of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Nyssa’s smokey voice sings of a woman who eats apples from a tree while shirtless, sleeps in a boxcar, and takes part in other adventures.
“That’s something that doesn’t really happen because the idea of a woman traveling alone on the open road seems unsafe, and any time you see that story, it ends tragically,” she says. “So what I’m trying to do with these female characters is give them the chance to have a freedom that the real world does not allow them.”
The other characters on the album are just as colorful, as are the songs sung from Nyssa’s own perspective. On the slow-paced “Anybodys,” a woman freshly out of jail for killing someone who wronged her confronts the cop who arrested her, and in the sassy “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon (Without You),” a rich girl declines her dad’s money. “Full of Love,” which mixes ’80s production techniques with ’50s rockabilly melodies and culminates in a rave-like cacophony of guitar and vocal samples, lends a rich sonic palette to the whole array of emotions relationships unleash. In the country-tinged “Misty Morning,” she meditates on humanity’s relationship with nature.
“The album exists on a spectrum between hopelessness and hope and anger and acceptance,” she says. “I just really wanted these stories to exist, and not just purely in a folk or country setting. I love those genres, but I wanted to be able to dance to it.”
The first single, the energetic “Bye Bye Jubilee,” was inspired by the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, where Nyssa read about the difficult lives of Walmart employees, and an article she read about people living in the Walmart parking lot. “That experience is kind of indicative of an overall death of the idea of a self-made person,” she says. “I don’t think people can escape a situation like that, and I think that needs to change, that people are trapped in situation like that. And Walmart is specific, but it could be directed at any evil corporation.”
Nyssa started her first band at age 13 and later branched out to create music as a solo artist and learn production, releasing her debut EP, Champion of Love, in 2018. For Girls Like Me, she first wrote and recorded the songs herself in her apartment, then asked musician friends to collaborate with her. They recorded the music together live, then she sampled their performances. The resulting album showcases the work of a variety of artists, including Zack Burgess (Kremlin, Gardenworld), Matthew Aldred (
A self-described androgyne and pansexual pagan, Nyssa uses music to contend with feelings of being out of place — indeed, her mission is to celebrate the out-of-place. “I’ve kind of come to this point where I feel comfortable in how I present myself in this more androgynous way,” she says. “It’s been really fulfilling for me to occupy this space as a human being and a performer. I don’t follow any rules with my own sexuality, and I don’t follow any rules prescribed by any kind of organized religion.”
Fortunately, she sees the music industry as a whole headed in this direction, where those previously deemed outsiders are being centered. “I think we’ve gotten to this place where people are sick of straight dudes making music, and they don’t really want to hear those stories anymore,” she says. “I think we’re continuing to move on this path of lifting up women’s voices and non-men’s voices, and there are more trans and non-binary artists around now than there have ever been before, and all these sorts of mass reckonings that have been happening — it does feel like we’re cleaning house. Not only cleaning house, but trying to build a house that is less dudes in bands singing shitty love songs. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but I’m going to keep doing that work myself.”
Follow Nyssa on Facebook for ongoing updates.