In mid-January, singer-songwriter Val Merza took to Instagram to explain why her music had been deplatformed. “I’ve been dreading making this video,” she began.
Merza shared that Spotify had taken down her vulnerable yet indomitable debut single, “This Is My 23,” claiming that 100% of the more than 14,000 streams the tune had garnered were fake, further accusing Merza of buying streams. Fighting back tears, she denied the streaming platform’s allegation.
“I am obviously devastated, because I have worked very hard,” said the full-time musician, who has more than 60 gigs lined up for 2024, not counting the shows she’s already played. Rather than rail against the arbitrary rulings of a godlike social media platform, however, Merza detailed her plans going forward.
She vowed to never release anything on Spotify again, shifting the planned Jan. 26 release of her new single “Hey Stranger” to Bandcamp. The single’s release will be celebrated at a Jan. 27 gig at Tommy’s Pub.
“I don’t want my gratitude to get lost in this message,” Merza concluded, thanking her fans with vivacity, charm and honesty — attributes that are hallmarks of her crowd-pleasing relatable tunes like “This Is My 23.”
Here, a plangent descending guitar line nestles and spoons with Merza’s open, slightly quavering vocal:
“Half my friends, they hate the drama/ But the other half, it’s like high school never ends/ And dating is such a fucking pain/ Guys in their 20s, they’re all insane/ But guys in their 30s play the same old games…”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I was played by a guy in his 30s,” Merza tells me a few days before the Spotify debacle. The 25-year-old artist’s confessional, autobiographical lyrics indicate that this latest obstacle is not her first rodeo in the hardship sweepstakes.
In fact Merza has had it worse, much worse, having overcome life’s obstacles with disarming openness, insatiable curiosity and boundless energy.
“[Here’s a] hot take, people are generally good,” she says. It’s a surprising sentiment given her frequently harrowing upbringing.
“I didn’t grow up in a very safe environment,” Merza says of her formative years in Bergen County, New Jersey. When pressed for details about her abusive home, she gives her only terse answer of the interview.
“[It was] emotional, physical and otherwise. Both parents,” she replies. “There was sexual abuse too.”
At age 14, she was involuntarily checked into the first in a series of treatment homes.
“I had a lot of mental health issues,” she offers. “To be blunt, I was trying to off myself every few months. I didn’t really want to live if I had to live with [my parents].”
Music proved to be a welcome escape. Merza learned to play contemporary 2010s pop on keyboards — Katy Perry, Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift. She avoided her father’s instrument, the guitar, like the plague, but then at age 15 she heard “Therapy” by All Time Low. The tune resonated with Merza, and she taught herself to play it on guitar.
Journey through adversity
On her 18th birthday in 2016, Merza moved out of her parents’ house, moving in and out of homeless shelters for the years to come.
She took out a restraining order on her parents, who she says harassed her regularly. After putting herself through Ramapo College on a degree completion program geared for adult students, Merza earned a degree in Social Science. She began working full-time amid bouts of homelessness.
Merza was fielding admissions from a handful of law schools when she suffered a stroke, precipitated by a traumatic family event that she prefers not to elaborate on.
“The left side of my body doesn’t work the way it used to,” Merza says. “It has definitely affected my ability to play [guitar].”
A 9-to-5 job in wealth management brought Merza enough stability that she started playing cover songs at open mics in New Jersey and New York on a weekly basis. She wrote just a handful of tunes, the first being “Whatever it Takes,” sparked by a doomed long-distance relationship with a guy in Montreal. The song remained unfinished until the couple broke up. The end of the relationship spurred Merza to finish the tune.
Meanwhile, it occurred to Merza that there was much more to life than Bergen County, New Jersey. Her inner monologue at the time is documented in “This Is My 23,” written right after Merza’s 23rd birthday.
“I had graduated from college at that point and I was thinking, ‘God forbid I meet somebody up here and I get a better job. I’m never going to leave,’” Merza remembers.
So, she picked up and moved to Charlotte in June 2022, not knowing a soul within 700 miles. Along the way, Merza was ripped off by her moving company, so all her worldly possessions consisted of a handful of identification documents, some clothes and her Taylor GTe Urban Ash guitar.
Upon landing in the Queen City, Merza looked for work, but couldn’t find a position in wealth management because she wasn’t licensed by The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in North Carolina. Searching for something to make ends meet, she focused her energies into becoming a full-time performer.
“It was a survival tactic,” Merza says. “It was, ‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to be homeless again, just in a different state with less support.’”
To get exposure and find community, she started playing open mics at venues including The Great Wagon Road Distillery in Waxhaw, Smokey Joe’s Cafe & Bar in east Charlotte, Pineville Tavern, Common Market Oakwold, and The Evening Muse.
Performing came easy to the self-described extrovert. Also, there is another aspect of Merza’s personality that can make her seem particularly fearless.
“I’m autistic,” she says. “That throws a wrench into things because I don’t pick up on social cues a lot of the time. I can train myself, and I have, but that only goes so far when your brain is not wired to pick up on certain things.”
Merza essays tunes by artists including Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Halsey and more at venues throughout the region, traveling as far afield as Augusta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. She frequently slips some of her originals into the cover sets.
“I can play an original song, and because of the way that I play it, you couldn’t tell if it was my original or an obscure niche pop song that you haven’t heard before.”
Unmasking authenticity in originality
In the meantime, Merza began booking ticketed shows where she exclusively plays her growing cache of original songs at venues including The Milestone, The Rooster in Gastonia, Tommy’s Pub, and Starlight on 22nd.
“I met someone very soon after I moved here,” Merza says. “Obviously — new partner, new city, new home … It inspires you. So I started gushing out songs.”
One of those songs is “Hey Stranger,” which debuts despite Spotify on Jan. 26. Merza started writing the tune three weeks after she met her now ex-boyfriend.
“I’m a songwriter, and that is what we do,” Merza says. “The first time I played that song I was at The Evening Muse with my ex in the front row with all our friends.”
“And that night I cried on the floor/ And I, I told you about my father/ You kept me safe, kept me warm/ Now just hold me for a little longer…”
Given Merza’s personality, it was only natural that she played such a candid and unguarded song in public, in front of the tune’s inspiration, even if it risked making some in the audience uncomfortable.
“I’m loud and impulsive, and I say a lot of crazy shit into the mic,” Merza says. “I’m dramatic [and] I put people in the spotlight who don’t necessarily want to be.”
In spite of, or perhaps because of, these characteristics, Merza realized that she had a knack for connecting with audiences.
Some colleagues advised her to create an alter ego for herself, she recalls, so that promoting herself would feel less uncomfortable . That tactic is anathema to Merza, who can’t help but be herself.
Likewise she’s shunned advice to avoid between-song chatter. She believes that a performer simply singing songs is less relatable for the audience.
“People want to know that what they’re investing in is authentic,” Merza says. “People appreciate the person behind the artist.”
She acknowledges that her open approach can be a double-edged sword.
“The beauty about it is that some people know me because they have heard my lyrics,” Merza says. “The downside is that people think they know [all about] me because they’ve heard my lyrics.”
Despite her ease performing onstage, Merza was initially resistant to recording and releasing any of her music.
“Part of it was because I was scared that it would confirm my insecurities as a musician,” Merza says.
Playing extensively to make a living had also left Merza little time to learn production. The few professional recording facilities she had toured convinced her that recording her material would prove too costly.
Then one of her closest friends, Charlotte musician Zac Robins of Mirror Game, convinced her to record and release her debut single, “This Is My 23.” The tune was cut at Robins’ home studio; he played on it, mixed it, mastered it and produced it. Merza was happy with the result, but vowed to become more involved in the production process.
When it came time to record follow-up single “Hey Stranger,” Merza took the advice of Robins and another musician friend Kevin Goodwin, bringing the song to Chris Suter’s Ginger Cat Sounds in Fort Mill South Carolina.
“It was my first time in a pro studio,” Merza says. She discovered so much personal and musical chemistry with Suter that the project expanded to the five-song EP Colors. One of the songs on the forthcoming EP is a re-recorded version of “This Is My 23.”
Merza credits Suter with helping her expand her musical vocabulary so she can better communicate what she wants to hear on a song.
“For example, I was saying, ‘The vocals sound very far away,’ and Chris would say, ‘Oh, you want compression.’” Merza says. “Then [I’d say,] ‘I want it more echoey.’ ‘Reverb?’ [He’d say] ‘Yes!’”
Colors drops on May 10. In the meantime, Merza’s fans can celebrate the release of the original version of “Hey Stranger” at Tommy’s Pub on Jan. 27. In addition to Merza, the bill includes Kevin Goodwin, Mirror Game and soul jazz violinist Emanuel Wynter.
Merza will leave her Taylor GTe Urban Ash at home and focus on singing with a full band, including lead guitarist Robins and Wynter as well as rhythm guitarist Dahmon McCoy, bassist Zak Ferrell and drummer David Gibson. Merza hopes the audience comes away from the show with the feeling that people have way more in common with each other than they realize.
Thinking about the effect of music on listeners, Merza remembers coming offstage after playing one of her songs at the Evening Muse. A girl came up to her crying.
“She said, ‘I just got my heart broken last week, and you made me feel just a little less alone,’” Merza says. “In that moment, I felt like I had already made it, [with] people telling you that your music did something for them. Everything else is just a bonus.”
Merza acknowledges that sometimes she still does things that don’t make sense to others.
“But people appreciate that because it’s real,” Merza says. “I’m not trying to create an image around myself.”
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