Aviva Mongillo might be known as a TV actress to some, starring in shows like Backstage and Workin’ Moms, but in the music world she sheds that made-for-TV image and becomes CARYS – a pop music perfectionist who’s one to watch out for in 2021.
She recently signed a record deal with Warner Music Canada amidst the online success of her TikTok hit Princesses Don’t Cry. The early results of that relationship with Warner is the EP “To Anyone Like Me, which appeared in October 2020 with such notable songs as No More, Crush and her latest “When A Girl”.
We marked CARYS as an artist to watch in 2021 for her crafty song writing and musical style – and besides that, I also found out that deep down, she’s just as shy as I am.
Sadly, this has become the first question I ask everybody now. And it’s kind of depressing, but everybody’s curious. So how has the pandemic treated you?
Personally I feel that I’m in a really lucky position. I got to spend most of the pandemic at home with my family and we just had a lot of time to spend together. And I spent it mostly in my childhood home, which has a lot of space and it’s been good. I’ve been healthy, knock on wood. Of course I want to get back to being able to go outside and hug everybody and be with people. But I feel on the lucky side of it all.
Yeah. In one sense, you got a double whammy though, because both of the industries that you work in were really hit hard by COVID.
Yeah, they have. And although it’s been at home and a bit of a challenge, I’ve still been able to pursue opportunities with music and acting. And I know that a lot of productions have been stopped and everything’s up in the air, but luckily I’ve been able to still work as well.
I want to ask about the name CARYS. Where did that come from and why did you choose to use another name?
Well, this name is derived from the word love in Welsh, and I just wanted a name that meant something pretty, like love and that was catchy and one word, aesthetically. And that name stuck out to me right away.
It’s cool that it separates your music from your acting.
Yeah. That wasn’t the intention, but naturally, it keeps them in different worlds. I see CARYS and myself as an actress, living in different worlds.
This year you were able to release “To Anyone Like Me.” Tell me about the EP and what it means to you specifically.
Well, this EP was a huge game changer for me. I used to write a lot of songs with either myself or my guitar or with YouTube. And with this EP, I got to travel to Denmark, LA. We had people fly out to Toronto to write with me for this EP. So it was just a really exciting time of my life writing this EP and then a really honest time as well, because for a long time I was writing honestly, but not with intention. And then with this EP, I was writing with the intention of, “Okay, I want people to know who I am and get a sense of the more fun side of me with this EP.” And I think we did that.
You got to work with a Canadian music legend, Gavin Brown, this time. That’s really cool. What was it like working with him?
Working with Gavin was really fun. We both are very exuberant in the writing room, very animated. And working with him always makes me feel inspired to just push myself a little further with things. If we’re writing something he’s a very good person to have in the room because he always seems to push it in the right direction when we’re feeling stuck.
You mentioned that the song writing process has changed. Tell me about how you started writing some of your first songs and how it differs greatly from the new song writing process.
Well, I used to write songs on my guitar, which in general is very different, more organic vibe and I would just let words come to me and write about whatever, it didn’t even have to be something that happened to me or my life.
I would just write, along with a story of whatever came to mind, even if I didn’t feel connected to that, I felt like I was writing a lot just for fun. And when it came to working with producers, like working with Gavin Brown, working with other songwriters and getting into rooms with people who I’d never met before, it became a more intentional experience where it felt “Okay, I’ve got so many incredible resources helping me to tell a story. What story do I want to tell?”
Whereas for a while when I was writing alone, which both are nice. I think they’re just different. But one is more of I get to do whatever I want, write whatever I want and just say whatever, no one’s going to hear it. And now I feel, “Okay, this is going to go on an EP.” And it was an exciting challenge.
“When A Girl” is your latest single from the EP. Tell me about that song and where it came from.
So that song was brought to me by my team at Atlantic and was suggested to me as a, “Hey, we heard this song and we think it sounds like you.” So I heard it and I loved it. I love the message and I resonate with it. So then we decided to release it is one of the singles and with a music video.
When a song like that is presented to you, is there something that you contributed to make it your own?
I think the singing is the delivery of the song, the chance to show my interpretation of it because every singer sings things differently. And I really took this opportunity to, even though I didn’t write it. This was the first song I haven’t written that I’ve sang, so I just tried to put myself in the shoes of if I had written it.
It’s a very colorful video. You must find making music videos a little bit easier than the average musician, because you’re also an actress.
You would think that. I actually get so nervous. It’s fun because it’s a song. So to me, the song is like the script. So I have a script, but it’s hard because it’s a lot more vulnerable. You’re staring dead into the camera for a lot of it and with acting I enjoy pretending that the camera’s not there. But when the camera’s right in your face and you’re sitting right at it, it can be a little more intimidating. But it’s true, I do love making music videos.
I get a real, very Taylor Swift vibe from your videos. Is she an inspiration at all?
Oh, absolutely. Could you tell? (laughs) I grew up on Taylor Swift. She was one of the reasons I even went into music and songwriting. Her first album made me pick up a guitar and start learning it. So I’m glad the influence is there.
That was my next question. When and what inspired you to actually take music seriously?
That’s a good question because I’ve always done it, like I said. I always used to write songs just for myself. And then in the 11th grade, around age 16, 17, I was feeling that I’ve been doing this for so long and nobody’s really heard my songs or I’ve never put anything out there. So I decided to start posting some of my songs online. And then that happened to lead me to a producer in Toronto that I ended up working with just for fun and to learn, was working with songwriters. So after that time working there where I’d go to the studio every day and I just loved it. I would take the train from Markham to Toronto every morning and stay there all day long writing songs. And I just loved it so much that I just couldn’t stop and I kept going.
“Princesses Don’t Cry” sounds like a very personal song when you listen to it. Is it personal and why did you write it?
I wrote this song when I was 17. I had the intention going into the session to write something… I had the title “Princesses don’t cry” and then I had some of the lyrics like, “Over monsters in the night.” I had written stuff down. And it is personal but at the time I didn’t really know what I was writing it about.
I just was putting words down that resonated with me and made sense to me. And when I look back at it now, what it means is just there were so many expectations for how I felt people expected me to be that I couldn’t live up to. And the frustration of feeling, “I’m just a girl, I’m just a young person. I don’t know who I am. And I see all these examples of people who seem to have it all together or understand themselves or feel good. And I just feel I’m in the middle of it all,” because that’s how I felt. But at the time I wasn’t even aware of it so deeply to know that’s what I was writing about.
Are you happy that this song became the breakout song? Especially on TikTok.
I’m happy to even have a breakout song and because it taught me so much. When it first started gaining attention, I really wrote myself off because of the title “Princesses don’t cry.” I felt, “Oh, it’s not cool. I sing about princesses.” And I was looking down upon it and upon my own writing. And so to see that song do so well and have so many people connect with it was a reminder to myself that my intuition, my instincts, my songwriting resonates with people. And this is one of the songs that when I really listened to it after it came back into my life, I felt, “Oh, wow. Yeah, this is really good. I should be proud of this song.” And I am.
Was the music video made after all the TikTok stuff? And if so, you could have went in a million different directions with the video, right?
Yeah. So the video was made after the TikTok stuff was happening. We re-released a song because I had released it on my very first EP when I was 19. So we re-released it as a single and then made a video. And we had some limitations to make the video, because I was on tour in the States doing some shows and we filmed the video in Atlanta, Georgia.
So we flew out a director and then we had limited options to film the video. So we worked within the ideas of having it in a studio space and me and the director just talked about different visuals and different things we could film. And we came up with the ones that are in the video.
How does filming a music video differ from film, or even film different from television? Because you’ve had a chance to do all three.
Definitely! Looking into the camera versus looking away from the camera, that’s a very big difference. Usually with film there’s a lot more people on set, with music videos, in my experience, there’s less people on set. So it’s a more intimate environment and on a set and on a music video you’re doing multiple takes. So it’s quite similar. It’s just a different medium.
Do you prefer the big crowd watching or the intimate crew?
Definitely the intimate. If someone has a camera on me, I’m very aware that the camera is on me and I don’t behave as naturally as if it’s with less people. I’m a very shy person. So with less people, the easier it is to be vulnerable and open up.
How does a shy person end up choosing music and acting as a career?
Yeah, this has been a very interesting journey for me. I haven’t always been shy. I’ve grown up from being very, very loud and really extroverted to, as I’ve been growing up, just more introspective. And especially after this year, being in my head all year because of isolation, naturally. I feel like we’re all feeling that. I like to push myself outside of my comfort zone and going down this path of music and acting, I love doing these things so much. I felt, okay, yeah, I’m a little shy, but it’s an opportunity to face my fears to do what I love. And I see that as a purposeful action, that if I wasn’t a little nervous, then it probably wasn’t something I really cared about that much.
In some ways I can relate. I remember the very first time I ever went on the radio, I was so inexperienced and I didn’t even go to school for it. I was just a guy who had a chance to crack a mic on a radio station and I would never want to listen to that show ever. Do you feel like you don’t want to do see anything that you did early on?
Oh man. Yeah. The cringe factor, for sure. I’m glad you said that. That made me feel so understood because it’s so true. It’s so scary, even though you like it and it’s something you know you’re good at and that it’s fun. The other part, “Okay, just do it. Just speak. It’s okay.” And afterwards, the high of that, especially performing live for me, right before I go on stage to perform live, I feel like throwing up. I almost feel “I don’t want to go out there. Someone else go out and stall.” But then as soon as I’m on the stage, you can’t get me off.
Let’s go back to that first show then. So what was that like?
I did some shows when I was younger I did, for my singing lessons, a recital, and we had to perform in a church in front of maybe a hundred people. And that’s what I remember being the first time I ever performed. And I just stood there like a stick, just didn’t move, lightly swayed, left to right while I avoided eye contact with the crowd and sang a Kelly Clarkson song.
And again, if you’re anything like me, when you were in that moment, somehow, even though you were so stiff and so timid, you knew deep down, “This is what I want to do.” It’s almost kind of fun.
Yeah. It is funny because I’m not showing it right now. I’m not really doing all the stuff I really want to be doing, like spinning around and walk you through the crowd, just letting myself go wild. But I knew that I would gain the confidence to really own the stage.
On the opposite end of this, has there been an acting moment that you’re most proud of? The highlight of your career?
I think I’ll go with Backstage because I was so young, it was my very first job ever. And I was one of the leads of this family channel show where we were filming really fast paced and I had a lot of work to do. So I basically went from doing nothing as a 17 year old to learning heaps of lines and practicing and getting to set at 6:00 AM. I went straight to work mode. And I think I look back at that as the proudest time, because I really showed myself how hard I was willing to work for my dreams and how much I really did love it because I’d never been so passionate about anything. If you have to make me work hard to do anything like school, math, I would be complaining at that time. So the fact that I wasn’t complaining, waking up at 5:00 AM, getting to set, being there all day long. I look back at that as a really proud moment.