A lot can change in a year. Just ask Donna Missal.
Last year, the singer-songwriter was dropped by her label, severely depressed, and was living out of her car. This year, she’s back on her feet and just released her best album to date, Revel, as an independent artist. Recorded intermittently on laptops, in bedrooms, and during random studio sessions, Revel completely redefined her work process as a musician. As the new record came together, so was Missal’s will to rebuild her life from the ground up.
Rewinding to the top of 2020, Missal was preparing for a very different path. She was about to release her sophomore album, Lighter, and was coming off a series of slots opening for Lewis Capaldi and King Princess. A New Jersey native born into a musical family, the 32-year-old initially made waves in 2016 with a viral hit called “Keep Lying” which showcased her expressive vocals.
Her debut album, This Time, built off her early success and led to gigs like touring internationally, where Missal learned how to handle huge crowds, and graced stages at festivals like Bumbershoot and Bonnaroo. She was ready to parlay this momentum into her second album, instead, Lighter was one of those doomed 2020 releases that barely got a fraction of the attention it might’ve otherwise received—and that it rightly deserved.
Polished and poised, the songs on Lighter lean more Adele or Florence + The Machine than the dance-pop she’s making now, piano pop with blues flourishes and her powerhouse vocals front and center. Melodramatic, theatrical, and designed to be wailed live, it wasn’t pandemic music.
Releasing another EP with Harvest, in the mirror, in the night in February 2022, Missal was unceremoniously dropped by the label soon after that, which sent the rest of her life into a tailspin. Losing her financial stability meant losing her housing, and when her longtime manager cut ties following the label dismissal, she suddenly felt completely isolated and alone.
“It was a really, really scary time,” Missal tells SPIN over the phone. “I stayed in my car, just out of embarrassment of continuing to ask those around me for help. It’s a pretty common experience when you’re at your lowest, that even if you have systems of support, to be too ashamed to lean on them. I was in a really scary place, I got really depressed. I lost my sense of identity and where I fit into the life I thought I created for myself.”
With her life in shambles, Missal tuned into something bigger and beyond herself to find peace. Looking beyond her lack of living situation, and the quickly disappearing music industry infrastructure she’d come to rely on, she began to connect to something spiritual, instead. And that sense of searching for the divine is at the heart of most of the songs on Revel.
“I was really needing to experience some peace because my life was in such disarray,” she says. “I was discovering during that time that life is so painful, but also, cracking to the point where I had no choice but to start letting some light in, and search for light in order to transcend this period and pull myself out of it.”
As painful as that time was, Missal used the experiences as fuel in the studio, and the intensity of those emotions elevated Revel to a level that was far beyond what she’s released before that evokes left-field pop stars like Caroline Polachek, Grimes, and Empress Of. Through an obsession with the concept of connecting to the divine, she began to feel expressive and creative again, and songs like “God Complex,” “Heaven Here,” “Move Me” and the final track “I Saw God” all reflect the intensity and difficult emotions she was experiencing at the time. They also caught the ear of a number of people who knew audiences would connect to them, too.
After sending the songs to distributors and publishers, Missal received positive responses and money started coming again from those sources. She found herself with enough to pay rent and actually make the record she’d been piecing together during laptop sessions and random studio days. Missal describes the album as a record about “pain, and loss, and overcoming something,” but juxtaposing and contradicting those concepts with “this energetic, danceable music.” The lead single off the record, “Flicker,” which is also the first song on the record, encapsulates those tensions perfectly.
“I found that connection with my body really helped me transcend those dark experiences,” she remembers. “So I wanted ‘Flicker’ to open the record for that treason. It’s rooted in this really danceable production that carries this whole record. I really wanted to make an album that you could cry to and dance to at the same time. “I look back on it now, and it’s such a blur of emotions and fierce reaching, and I feel more resilient than ever. I’m really proud of that. That experience is really what this album is all about.”