I started listening to Donna Missal just over a year ago, after a friend introduced me to her searing 2018 single “Keep Lying.” The song stayed on repeat for weeks. I was (and remain) convinced that no one on this earth could replicate Missal’s sound—her impossibly high notes, her warm, smokey rasp. The rhythms of her voice felt then as if they were meant to fill my ears on walks to class or during late nights of studying.
But one month after I first heard that song, the COVID-19 pandemic hit America head-on, and we retreated into quarantine. I continued to turn to Missal, but the places and situations in which I listened to her changed dramatically. In those early months from March to May, I searched for ways to fill the small space of my bedroom with movement and life, and found an answer in her first album, This Time. Her second, Lighter, then defined July to September—those months that saw me beginning to venture outside of my room but still remaining alone.
Since that quarantine summer, I’ve heard Missal’s voice not only on those albums but in places ranging from the soundtrack of Promising Young Woman to the background of her own viral TikTok. And today, Missal released “sex is good (but have you tried)” to an audience of fans who had been demanding to hear the single since she teased its beginnings in that very TikTok. First created alone and a cappella in her bedroom, the track was completed over the Internet alongside UK producer Sega Bodega. With no in-person studio production, “sex is good (but have you tried)” is a song true to the years of its creation and release—written about self-reliance, recorded in isolation, and edited from a digital distance.
The kind of earworm that stays in your head for a (long) while, “sex is good” asks us to look beyond physical pleasure, past the body and deep into the brain. Here, I speak to Missal about her own experiences with loneliness and bedroom isolation, the single’s creation process, and the nuances of her social media presence. You can watch the official video for “sex is good (but have you tried)” below. Then, keep reading on for our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Lithium: The lyrics of “sex is good (but have you tried)” are very much about relying on yourself for happiness and fulfillment, rather than finding that in someone else. How did your quarantine experience impact the creation of that song?
Missal: I think quarantine made that song. Before quarantine, my lifestyle and writing had so much to do with being on the road—it was all influenced by performance. I was touring a lot over the last couple years, and when I was writing my record, I don’t think I even realized at the time how entrenched it was in live music culture. You’re getting all this emotional information from playing these shows and sharing this energy with people from room to room, huge venues to small. So when quarantine started, it just threw me into a new place so suddenly. I didn’t write anything for a long time. I don’t know—the bedroom experience of writing songs isn’t totally foreign to me because that’s kind of how I got started, by myself in my room. But I had never recorded my own vocals before, definitely not for release, and this is the first time that I’ve actually done my own vocal takes. So, the song is a bedroom record to its foundation. And I’ve found that a lot of my writing recently has been most influenced by this, like, need to be intimate—you know, I was living with my sister who works from home on these video conference calls, and my room is right next to hers. I couldn’t sing as loud as I wanted to, so I started recording these really tiny moments. I was as close to the mic as you can be, and it started to really impact what I was saying and how I was delivering it. It all had to do with being with myself, and literally just trying to be quiet.
Missal: And I don’t think that this song would have happened if I wasn’t in those circumstances. It’s a very specific kind of scenario. Because I was so heartbroken about touring and not being able to promote my record, it had been a while since I was really enjoying being a musician. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I definitely felt this, like, loss of my purpose and the meaning of it all. So I just really wanted this song to be fun. And I also think that it can pertain to anything that you wanna get deeper into. That’s kind of what the song is about to me—there’s all this shit on the surface, but what happens when you look underneath that? And even deeper than that? I think quarantine had a lot to do with why my thought process was even going into those spaces.
Photo by Julia Pitch
Lithium: You mentioned having to be quiet while your sister’s doing video calls from next door—this whole process of creating in your bedroom and finishing over the Internet, do you view that as freeing or more limiting?
Missal: It’s really about how you choose to see it. It could be both of those things or neither of those things. For a long time, I felt personally limited because of what I believed my strengths were. Going into quarantine, I was coming off of opening this arena tour, so I was really basing a lot of my self-worth at that time around my ability to sing to the back of a room no matter how big the room was. And that’s always kind of been how I’ve derived self-worth. Like, “Look, I can do this thing! I can be super loud! And maybe that’s the thing that sets me apart, and I should follow it into the dark!” It was really scary when that ability was taken away because it’s like, I’m pretty sure this is my identity, so who am I without it? I think I realized, though, after some months of giving myself a little bit of a break and staying my ass in therapy and, you know, just feeling the feelings—I came around to this idea that you’re only limited by what you allow yourself to be limited by, so maybe this is an opportunity to try something else! Like, see what else you have inside! Because my value cannot be encased in being able to be a loud singer. That’s not going to sustain me. That’s not healthy. And it definitely wasn’t easy. I had to kick my own ass a little bit. So of course there’s limitations. But they don’t have to define your experience and what you’re able to produce, and I know this wouldn’t have happened without these circumstances being exactly what they are. So I’m grateful to have been given this chance to see what else I love about writing and why I make music at all. It’s been really good for me.
Lithium: Yeah! And I definitely see how that’s been helping you experiment more, especially because this song feels like a first in that it references sex a bit more explicitly than in your other songs. Because you might not openly exercise this facet of yourself every day, do you feel that you use a different approach in writing more openly sexual music?
Missal: Because of the experience of writing from home and not writing in a room with a bunch of men? Yes. Definitely. One thousand percent, yes. Because it’s just for me! And my writing experience has been really varied, as I’ve mentioned, but definitely largely entrenched in the culture of, like, singer-songwriter goes into room with X producer and X guitarist and makes song. And that process has been very rewarding. But I think you’re right in that, like, when it’s just you, what would you say? What would you say if you didn’t have to explain yourself to anybody or justify why this lyric makes sense to you? And to just say it because you want to fucking say it? It’s so much to do with not being in that environment where you’re like, “Well, I’m the only woman, and this might come across the wrong way, so I’m not gonna say it.” That happens a lot, you know?
Lithium: Actually, I read your Shania Twain interview and there’s one thing you say in there that feels relevant here: “Sexuality is normal. But I’m not trying to say anything about my sexuality except that I experience sexuality.” It sounds like you were trying to say that you’d previously felt pressure to be a certain kind of sexual or address it in a specific manner, but it seems like some of that has actually disappeared, now that you’re not in a certain kind of environment.
Missal: Oh, yeah! And that isn’t even my individual experience. That’s just what it is to…exist. I think people across the spectrum feel that kind of constraint. It doesn’t matter where you fall; there’s someone who’s going to have something to say about that part of you. And we really have to come to terms with the fact that we all fuck. (laughs) I don’t want to come across as insensitive to anyone who doesn’t experience that, because that’s super normal as well. But I know from myself, like, I don’t want to be apologetic about something that I know is so fucking normal. But I have to. And I’ll kind of constantly wonder why I have to, although that kind of answers itself when I’m in a situation where someone is uncomfortable with my presence because of such a thing. The song has no intention to be some, like, anthem for women to feel liberated in their sexuality. (laughs) This is about enjoyment and fulfillment, period—whatever that means to you, no matter what it is that makes you feel fulfilled. Just knowing that it’s gotta come from you first, and then just kind of revelling in that, like, “Isn’t that fucking cool? Isn’t that fucking fun?”
Photo by Erica Hernandez
Lithium: Once you got the song on TikTok back in November, it kind of blew up, and you had hundreds of comments asking where people could listen to the whole thing. Has sharing your work or your personal life on TikTok differed in any way from doing so on Instagram? Are you noticing differences in responses to your music or the ways your fans interact with you?
Missal: Uh, yeah. Like, I have no idea what’s going on there.
Lithium: It really is a different world.
Missal: Yeah, it’s totally different! You know, Instagram’s been around for a while, and it’s pretty fucking curated. My following has grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk for the last few years since I’ve been pursuing this and putting myself out there. I don’t know—it feels like a curated store or something, whereas TikTok is just, like, unhinged. Like, anything goes.
Lithium: It’s fucking crazy. People just say whatever.
Missal: It is crazy! I’ve kind of learned a valuable lesson: no one cares on TikTok about who you are. They just care about the thing that you did, so if you do something cool, it’s not that they think you’re cool necessarily—they just think that the thing you did is cool. It just has to do with what you’re presenting and not with you at all! I had a real chip on my shoulder about that for a long time. But I don’t fucking care anymore because…that’s okay. I’ve been kind of seeing that as an advantage. Like, it’s okay with me that these people don’t care about me and who I am. Because, shit! I wanna say the song isn’t coming out just because TikTok fans wanted it. I know that at the end of the day, half of those people may not even know that the song comes out because they don’t even follow me, you know what I mean?
Lithium: Yeah! I saw that someone commented “When is the song coming out?” on your Instagram and you were like, “Maybe you should follow me to find out!” Or, like, I was stalking your TikTok comments before this and saw people who kept saying, “Oh my God, you should be a singer!” And you were like, “Actually, I am.” So I definitely get what you mean about viewers only seeing what is immediately presented to them, and not putting in effort to see who you are beyond that.
Missal: And I think that’s kind of an important space for the Internet! There’s so many people making music and there’s all these new access points—there’s gotta be a space that suits that more than the heavily-curated-news-feed type of thing. I feel like Instagram has become this, like, center of news about whatever it is that you’re doing, and TikTok is a place where you can experiment, do whatever, and then let the algorithm do what it’s gonna do. But you can’t place too much emphasis on letting that affect how you view yourself and your worth and your value. You’ll have one video doing really well one day and the next is, like, a flop. (laughs) That shit will destroy you if you don’t know why you’re on there using it in the first place. You see shit how you want to see it, and I don’t want to feel negatively about that space. Because it’s not going anywhere. And there’s nothing that I can do about it. So I can participate and enjoy it for what it is, or I can take it really seriously and get pissed off. I hope that the people who asked for the song get to hear it, but ultimately, I’m putting the song out because it makes me feel good—and I love it.
By Julianna Chen
Header image by Julia Pitch