Hayley Kiyoko and Producer Danja Take a Drive in a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S to Give “Underground” the Ultimate Car Test

When singer and queer icon Hayley Kiyoko was recording her sophomore album, ‘PANORAMA’, something didn’t feel quite right. A lifelong fan of indie and alt music, she was used to building up walls of sound, instrumentals, outros, interludes — everything that actually made her voice fight to be heard. “I think that deep down I always battled with really allowing my voice to be at the forefront,” she admitted at the recording of her Sound and Driven episode with Virginian superproducer Danja. It was he who she called up to explain the problem. “I was like ‘Hey, I have these walls of sound. I love the songs but it’s missing this pop element that I really want and need.’ So we had a massive journey of taking these songs, completely pulling them apart and deciding what was necessary. I think as an artist, everyone can relate to like less is more, but finding that balance is extremely challenging. He muted things and he created space for my voice to shine. And that’s it. I was hiding behind all of these extra bells and whistles that I loved, that I thought I needed, but I didn’t. And so the integrity of the music stayed the same, but he allowed my voice to shine while also still allowing me to have my walls of sound and the thumping 808, snare and all the things that I love about music and composition.”

The pair initially had all their discussions over FaceTime before Kiyoko flew out to see him in Miami. “I was telling him about the album — I basically had the album finished but it was missing this level that I was really wanting to achieve,” she says. “I didn’t quite know how to get there and so I was explaining to him what I was trying to accomplish. We vibed and he believed in my vision.”

Danja agrees. “The idea of me coming in and overseeing music and production and the record, in its totality, has become kind of my second nature. It’s not so much about me having to actually create the music but to see it and understand the emotion and what it’s supposed to be. That’s what I did with Haley’s project. I was able to come with a different perspective, with no attachment because I didn’t create it. I just went based on how it made me feel. If this sound felt like it was too much, then I took it out. If this sounds interesting, then I highlighted it. If the sound was competing with another one, I would just have to either let one decide which one gets its moment first.”

The producer who’s worked with the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Missy Elliot, Bjork, Usher and Mariah Carey certainly knows how to get the best out of a solo voice. And his technique with Kiyoko was simple: “I think the approach of it all is that Haley is the star [of the record]. Any artist that I’ve worked with is the star. And with the music, there’s probably one or two sounds, that’s the co-star. And the other ones are just playing their part. So no one can compete with each other. I know it sounds weird talking about sounds like people, but that’s kind of how I view it. I got to kind of put everybody in their respective places to play together and highlight the artist. A lot of artists hide behind the music. And as a listener, of course I want to hear a dope beat and a crazy bassline and to dance but more importantly I want to sing along. So the artists have to be in the forefront.”

Every album needs to pass the car test. The legendary moment when producer and artist take the finished record out of the studio and listen to it as they drive. It’s the most intimate moment of the record, when the pair can agree it’s finally finished, that it sounds as good as they can make it. It’s that moment that we want to explore with the Sound and Driven series. “The car test is one of the most critical points in the mix,” says Danja. “When you go to the car, that’s the make it or break it. Because you do all this work in the studio and it sounds great — it’s checking all the boxes. Then when you go to the car, something’s too high, something’s too low, there’s too much bass. So you have to make those adjustments. Most of us have listened to everything we’ve ever listened to in our life in the car. The car sound system is important. Whether it’s expensive, whether it is cheap, whether you enhance it yourself, whatever the case may be, the car test is critical. The record has to pass the car test. 

Kiyoko agrees: “Once you finish a song, you get it mixed and then you get it mastered. During the process, you can have 10 to 20 mixes and you get in the car. Normally you listen to your song on amazing speakers at the recording studio or something but you always have to do a car test. When I get a song mixed, I go, “Hey, I’ll let you know. I gotta get in my car. I gotta do the car test.”

“I’ve had some artists that do the whole mix in the car,” concludes Danja. “We always in the car. And that’s the kind of last resting place sonically for our music. So artists gotta pass the car test.”