Though Pia Allison Roa has been playing music for most of her life, she just started writing her own songs recently. Her debut single, 2021’s “Stranger,” showed her to already be an eloquent and evocative lyricist — even as it was her first big swing at a song — flourished by her mellifluous voice and a savvy sensibility for indelible melodies.
And even if she’s technically new to songwriting, it’s clear with Pia’s latest, “Old Days,” that she’s got a knack for finding the right words to express how she’s feeling in a song, even when that sometimes means no words at all. As she sings in the second verse “…In the silence / I felt whole…” it draws upon that significant emotional electricity we feel when we share a quiet moment with someone. That sentiment is also conveyed later as the song seems to whisk down toward a tender and poignant denouement but is actually only prefacing a satisfyingly gritty and visceral climax that delivers a wordless, instrumental catharsis.
“By the end of the song, when I was playing it on acoustic guitar, it just ended with the lyric, ‘if you need a reminder / know I’ll be right here,’ ” said Pia. “And I just felt like I couldn’t leave it at that. … There was just something else to be expressed; it couldn’t just end there, but there was also something more to say on the subject.”
Pia is a born and raised Michigander who started out on the piano in second grade. By middle school, though, she was drawn to the guitar and wound up with a hand-me-down starter from one of her sisters. From then on it became her primary instrument. While she still has a fondness for piano and can play it to this day, she starts all of her songs on guitar now. Still, though, she credits the piano with providing her the acumen for manifesting melodies and for strengthening her versatility as a musician.
But she never played music on a stage or in front of an audience until her undergrad days at Wayne State, when she performed during worship at a campus ministry. After finishing up graduate programs at WSU (totaling eight years in pharmacy school), she graduated just in time for the start of the pandemic. By which time, though, she’d started collaborating with local songwriter Christian Ohly, who’d just formed a band for his own songs, backed up by drummer Matt Jones. “[Ohly] was looking to add another singer and that’s how I met Matt; we started working on music just before the pandemic and that’s how I was able to start meeting more people and actually performing [with Ohly].”
“Nobody’s trying to tell me what I should sound like, and hypothetically speaking I don’t even know what people want me to sound like. I feel lucky about any opportunity because it’s genuinely happening — nothing is really forced now because it can’t be.” —Pia Allison Roa
Pia says her first shows in local venues with Ohly were scary at first, but ultimately enjoyable. In fact, it was fun for several reasons, a small one being that there was less evident pressure since these weren’t her songs. “I only started writing my own songs within the last two years; I didn’t think I could ever do it. But the pandemic definitely gave me enough free time to try.” During this time she naturally stayed in touch with Jones and Ohly, as well as musician/producer John Katona. Eventually she reached out to (and connected with) Ypsilanti-based producer Ben Collins.
“Since ‘Stranger’ was my first full, front-to-back completed song, I wanted to put it out as soon as I could because I was almost afraid that nothing else would ever come out,” Pia says. That song particularly leaned into the confluence of nostalgia, insularity and shock that can come with the end of one’s “college days.” “And because I’m very new to this music scene situation, I just reached out to Ben Collins because I knew of him through his work with Frontier Ruckus — a band that [Ohly] and I really liked. I told [Ben] that I had a song, and basically said I had no experience really and he said it was no problem. He asked if I was looking to record more than one song or an EP and I remember saying, ‘Ben, I have ONE song.’ So, [Ohly, Jones and I] went to his studio in Ypsi and we recorded ‘Stranger’ inside of one weekend.”
Pia is aware that she’s “coming of age musically” during a time when there was no way for the social infrastructure of our local “music scene” to look/feel/operate as it once had before the pandemic. “Even if I don’t know what it was like ‘before,’ I’m actually thankful to be starting out when I am because I still have this my own small community that I can rely on and bounce ideas off of without the worry of needing to meet this person or go to that show. … Before the pandemic, I certainly went to lots of shows as an audience member and didn’t even think about or know about a ‘scene…’ But I feel like I’m able to have a clearer vision of things I want to do with my own music and who I want to work with and trust musically.
“All this to say, that it just feels genuine,” Pia says. “Nobody’s trying to tell me what I should sound like, and hypothetically speaking I don’t even know what people want me to sound like. I feel lucky about any opportunity because it’s genuinely happening — nothing is really forced now because it can’t be.”
A theme has emerged in both of her first two singles — even if it takes three occurrences to make a trend —nevertheless the experience of withstanding and processing change is addressed in her lyrics, which is undoubtedly a relatable subject. Her first single, “Stranger,” was “…more a culmination of the time for me during college, but [“Old Days”] is more like a relationship or just a friendship. But [both] are about changes — that’s something I’ve been going through, so change is seeping into everything I write about.”
Even if memories of a friendship changing trigger sadness, at least initially, Pia sees the song as “being really happy for that time spent, and being thankful just to look back. People are important to you at different stages of your life and sometimes that person’s just not there anymore. But I think we can be each other’s reminders …back to those points of our lives, even if we’re no longer close or that stage of our lives isn’t the same, anymore. And the song helped me get to that point of seeing that that time is definitely over for a reason and it’s good–look where you’re at now! If things were the same, then where you are now would not even be a thing–and I like where I am now. I don’t know if I would have gotten to that conclusion if I didn’t write a song about it…”
Pia said that she sometimes catches herself feeling as though she’s “got to be the only person feeling this way, right now,” when she’s penning a song. But now that she’s been able to experience actual feedback from actual fans who have actually listened to her song, whether they interpret her experience accurately or not they’ve still told her that there’s something powerful in her words that is resonating with them. “And they connected! That’s so deep! It makes me feel known … and human … and just not alone!”
Pia demoed “Old Days” with Ben Collins, where she played guitar and sang lead vocals, and Collins played lead electric guitar, with Ade Olaniran (aka Stoop Lee) on drums. She eventually finished the recording process at John Katona’s JK (Not Kidding) Studios, where Jones added bass and synth and Tom Mihalis added more guitar parts. “It ended up being produced in the end by John,” Pia said, “but it’s cool that the essence/sound and ideas of the song started at Ben’s and that Ade, who I’m now about to open for, is on drums.”
Going forward, Pia is working closely with musician Matt Jones as co-songwriters, forging a backing band that’s planning to play shows in the near future. Pia, as a band, will perform their first official show on March 26, opening for stoop lee at Sanctuary Detroit. It was a show that Pia said yes to before fully considering whether she and Jones had a full set of songs. “But we’ve got enough to go on between us in the mix that we can make it work.”
After the March 26 show, the plan is to work on and finish a formal debut EP by late summer. Said Pia, “…I’m just excited to get more songs out there!”
PIA performs March 26 @ The Sanctuary, opening for Stoop Lee, with Jacob Sigman, Internet Boy, Munch and Leo Pastel