Art is Serious Business

A conversation with Rae Isla & Tiffany Carvalho.

Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter & producer Rae Isla sits down with Tiffany Carvalho, Founder of Tolli, a platform created by artists, for artists that aims to promote cross-border collaboration amongst creatives of different disciplines.

Tiffany Carvalho: Who is Rae Isla? Where do you want to transport listeners when they hear her music?

Rae Isla: I’m deeply spiritual, and I often say that my life’s purpose is to experience and discover love in every possible form. For me, love as an entity is what some people call “god” or “nirvana,” etc. I want to capture that feeling in all its forms and translate it through music that makes people feel incredible about being alive.

On a personal note, I’ve experienced crippling depression since I was in my teens and the only thing that’s pulled me out of it is feeling connected to something bigger, religious, spiritual. In some ways, writing songs about it has been my medicine and I want to share that.

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TC: How long have you been making music and how has self-production helped shape your sound?

RI: I’ve been making music since I was 3 years old. I started on the classical cello, which I hated because the curriculum was so strict, but the theory allowed me to teach myself other instruments. Production is half of the creation of a song - so I wouldn’t say self-producing has shaped my sound so much as created it. It’s enabled me to manifest the sounds I hear in my head and make completed songs without being dependent on someone else.

TC: You’ve mentioned that it’s important for artists to treat themselves like a “start-up.” What made you start thinking this way and how has this shaped the trajectory for you?

RI: Honestly, I love business development almost as much as a I love making music, which is great because if you want to make a living from your passion you have to treat it like a business. After college, I was able to afford moving to New York because I got a job launching a Spanish start-up in the city, while also doing my music. This gave my amazing experience in fundraising, building a brand, hiring a team, etc. Now I use the same ideas for building my music career.

Being an artist is being an entrepreneur.

TC: Do you think that more artists should take the independent route when it comes to their careers?

RI: I don’t believe anyone should do anything. Being an artist is being an entrepreneur, and every path you take is both valid and completely okay. Like anything, being independent has both pros and cons – I personally love it because I want to maintain control and ownership over my music and career and am willing to struggle for those benefits. Other artists may want the stability and infrastructure of a label and don’t mind giving away 90% of their songs for it.

TC: Who is an artist that you would love to collaborate with?

RI: That’s the toughest question because I’d love to collaborate with many artists (some I’m sure I’ve yet to discover). At this moment, I love Natalia Lafourcade - she’s a true musician and her songs are timeless. I’d love to try producing a song with her as I think the combination of our genres could create something entirely new.

Photo by Khitam Jabr

Photo by Khitam Jabr

RI: Tell me the story behind your company Tolli. What pushed you to start it in the first place?

TC: Well, not many people know this, but I came up with the idea for my company on a TV show. It was called Girl Starter and it aired on TLC and Discovery for a hot second. One of our challenges was to be matched with a random partner and come up with a business concept overnight. Thankfully, my partner was also an artist so it happened organically.

I was about a year out of college and had nothing going for me except for the fact that I responded to a casting call ad for this show I had never heard of. I had studied Theatre at Penn State with the goal of being an actress, but I wanted more. I wanted to explore the different identities that live inside my creative brain, but I was afraid. I really wanted to sing and make music but I had always been so shy about doing that, so before ending up on Girl Starter, I was spending my nights reaching out to a bunch of people on Craigslist and Instagram to see who wanted to jam, in hopes that I could build up some confidence and experience.

The original concept for Tolli started as an app that matches you with collaborators in your area, so as to make the process easier, but it’s slowly becoming that and so much more. Tolli is about community, yes, but it’s also about showing artists that there are different ways to achieve things. I was hanging around some top-dog corporate executives during and after my time on Girl Starter and I was picking up on some useful things that I didn’t necessarily learn in school. I was picking up on the benefit of thinking of myself as an entrepreneur, all the while staying true to my artistic vision and self. That’s probably the most important thing I’d like to share with artists that are maybe in the same position that I was.  

If you want to make a living from your passion you have to treat it like a business.

RI: You call yourself an artist-turned-entrepreneur - has having an artistic background helped you further yourself in business?

TC: Absolutely. Sometimes, I feel like a unicorn in the start-up space and I couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t like to do things in a traditional manner and that sets me apart from the rest. It’s the artist in me that’s always trying to find and use her voice, you know? I always say, I’m an artist first and then an entrepreneur. I’m both, but my artistic vision for things is what everything my company does is rooted in. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been able to fuel my creativity in different ways and my confidence has grown a lot. That’s something I’ve very proud of.

RI: What has been the biggest challenge in running a start-up?

TC: This is a tough one. I guess I would have to say being flexible. When you take the initiative to start something yourself, it can become overwhelming and things are constantly subject to change. You have to learn to be flexible and to adapt. Sometimes that can take its toll on you too. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting because it can be a lot of demanding work. Reminding myself to not stress over the things I cannot control has been the greatest challenge. Depression and anxiety run rampant in the start-up and business worlds. It’s incredibly important to take care of yourself and to surround yourself with people who see your inner strength. It keeps you focused and inspired. I’m very fortunate to have had a consistent circle of women that are constantly cheering me on.

Photo by Sophie Fatale

Photo by Sophie Fatale

RI: If you weren’t the Founder of a creative start-up, what other passion/industry would you consider pursuing?

TC: This is a tough question because truthfully, I’ve always wanted to be (and consider myself to be) a jack of all trades. I was first introduced to art through the medium of dance. I am classically trained in all styles except for tap. My love for performing was sparked at my first-ever dance recital, so I went on to study theatre. I always knew I didn’t want to be a professional dancer and at some point in high school, I discovered I was a pretty good actress so that’s what I got my degree in. Although I’m not doing much acting nowadays, it’s still something I revist when I can.

But there’s one thing I’d like to explore more than anything. Not many people know that I actually have a great singing voice. It’s something I’ve kept hidden for many years because there’s a part of me that’s actually very shy. Without giving up anything (not even my start-up) I’d like to nurture that musical side of me. It’s there, just begging to come out and I would be a fool not to listen to it. Although I LOVE my start-up, I have always wanted to pursue being an artist full-time and seeing how I can incorporate all of my talents into one focus.

Do it. And do it now. It couldn’t be a better time to start something.

RI: What is some advice would you give to other young women who want to start their own companies?

TC: Do it. And do it now. It couldn’t be a better time to start something, especially as a woman. It’s an incredibly difficult process and it may even get a little lonely, but there are tons of resources and support out there.

But don’t ever start a company just to start a company. I know that in a way, that’s kind of how I started, but seriously, make sure it’s something that you love so much you will never give it up. If it fuels you and drives you to be better and learn more, do it. Go for it. Take the risk and be bold. Failure and mistakes are inevitable, but ultimately it'll be the more fulfilling thing you’ll be able to do for yourself.

I also encourage any woman reading this to reach out to me if they have questions or need support. There were so many women that did, and continue to do, that for me and I’m not sure where I’d be without them. I’m on Instagram, so just slide into my Dms!