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Alissa Musto: “Honestly, it’s all a big lie”

If I could inspire a movement, it would involve encouraging young people to truly and apologetically pursue their best lives. I think my generation especially feels trapped by societal norms and expectations — going to the “right” school and having the “right” job and being in the “right” relationship, etc. etc. Honestly, it’s all a big lie; […]

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If I could inspire a movement, it would involve encouraging young people to truly and apologetically pursue their best lives. I think my generation especially feels trapped by societal norms and expectations — going to the “right” school and having the “right” job and being in the “right” relationship, etc. etc. Honestly, it’s all a big lie; you won’t achieve happiness chasing someone else’s idea of happiness. I wake up every morning in a life, an environment and a career I truly love and I feel so grateful and blessed. But it didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t come without doubts, discouragement and criticism from friends, family and colleagues along the way. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum and regardless of what other people might’ve had to say about it, I kept doing my thing and I’m at a great place in life because of it. I hope I can inspire young people to take the leap, design the life of their dreams and just go for it. If you don’t go for it, someone else will.


As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing an award-winning musician, singer and songwriter, Alissa Musto.

Growing up in a family of professional musicians, Alissa started playing the piano at 4 years old and debuted on the national television series, “America’s Most Talented Kid” at age 9. Since then, she has wowed audiences around the world, performing throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Mediterranean, and French Polynesia. Music from her recent EP, “X Post Facto” has been described as “hauntingly beautiful”, “captivating”, poignant, authentic” and “the millennial ballad of the century”, while she has been critically praised as a “jazzy-folk songwriting genius”, a “female Elton John” and “your generation’s Billy Joel”. In addition to being featured in dozens of publications and music blogs, she has been interviewed for Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, Insider, Thrive, Moneyish, Refinery29, O the Oprah Magazine and Bustle. Representing her home state as Miss Massachusetts 2016, Alissa was also a top 15 finalist in the nationally-televised Miss America pageant on ABC and has been highly involved with several music education initiatives and organizations around the country.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thank you for sharing my story! I grew up in Massachusetts, born into a family of professional musicians, so I always joke that there was no way I was getting out of practice with the piano teacher living with me. I started playing piano when I was four after several nights of sitting by the door, begging my dad, also a pianist, to take me to work with him — and I’ve been performing ever since. I’m the oldest of 3; both my brother and sister are musically inclined as well.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started performing in front of audiences when I was 5 years old, so it seems like pursuing a career in music was always my destiny. As a freelance musician, I performed all types of music in all sorts of venues (everything from jazz clubs to weddings to children’s birthday parties dressed as Disney princesses — and just about everything in between). However, my journey as an international traveling musician with Billboard ironically started back in my hometown, Boston. I was in the waiting room of the music studio where I take vocal lessons when I noticed a poster for a talent agency casting performers. The agency usually held their auditions at nearby Berklee School of Music as part of an annual national audition tour to recruit upcoming graduates. However, because of some sort of scheduling conflict, they were holding auditions down the street. Despite already working with some of New England’s top agencies and being pretty booked up, I decided to audition anyway, and a little over a month later, I was performing in Europe. It changed my world forever; I absolutely fell in love with the shows, the audiences, and the lifestyle. I had a great performance career back home, and it took a lot to drop everything and leave it behind, but it has truly been a dream come true and I haven’t looked back.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Oh my goodness — I feel like every day, I encounter some crazy scenario that makes me think, “yup, this is one to add to the memoir”; getting detained by TSA because my pre-workout was detected as an explosive substance, a 95-year-old man walking into my hotel room at 3 am and tapping me on the shoulder because of a faulty room key, an 85-year-old woman running around at my show throwing her shoes at security, small world moments where I’ve been on the other side of the world and met people at my shows that attended my rival high school or knew people I know back home, drunken proposals, celebrity sightings — this is all within the last few months, by the way.

Most people who have known me for a while would agree that my Miss America journey has definitely been one of the most interesting plot twists of my career though. Most people assume I grew up competing in beauty pageants, which honestly, couldn’t be further from the truth. I was a total tomboy and the first time I ever considered doing a pageant was when a woman confused me for another local contestant while I was working after school. When I corrected her, she recommended that I check it out. I learned that the Miss America Organization is the largest scholarship provider for women in the world and as a classically trained pianist, it was another stage for me to perform on. Because I was so new to the whole thing, there was a huge learning curve, but I quickly moved through the “ranks”, becoming Miss Cambridge and then Miss Massachusetts a month after graduating college. After two weeks in Atlantic City alongside the other 51 contestants, I will never forget the thrill of hearing my name called out as a top 15 finalist on national television as millions of people watched. Statistically, you’re more likely to have a son compete in the Super Bowl than a daughter competes at Miss America.

I learned many valuable lessons, but my main takeaway was “wow, here you are top 15 in the country in something you’ve never done before, so why the heck are you selling yourself short and not 100% confident in pursuing your true passion, music”. I was contemplating law school at the time, having graduated with my Bachelor’s in government a few months prior. I knew the whole music thing would always be part of my life, but was on the fence about whether it was actually a viable career option. That was truly a defining moment for me, both personally and professionally.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started to perform full length shows, I definitely had some slip ups on the microphone. Even now, I’ll have moments on stage when I say something to an audience and then think “why the hell did I just say that?”. I think my most cringe-worthy on-stage moment was performing at a gala fundraiser for a women’s shelter. There were several silent auction numbers on the stage next to the piano, including a set of golf clubs. A man walked over to the golf clubs and picked them up and started swinging them around a little — to try them out. He turned to me and requested a song and I jokingly responded something among the lines of “you better believe I’ll play your song! I don’t know what you’re planning on doing with those golf clubs!”. He looked me right in the face, and in complete seriousness said, “this is an event for battered women. We don’t even JOKE about beating women here”. I was mortified. To add insult to injury, the CEO of the agency that hired me witnessed the whole thing. I learned to really watch what I say on the mic after that incident. Regardless of what your intentions are, things can be easily misconstrued on stage.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

This has been an incredible year for me — and I’m not planning on slowing down anytime soon. Earlier this year, I graduated from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music with my Master in Music and I am very excited to have been nominated for “Songwriter of the Year” in this year’s New England Music Awards. It is an incredible honor to be recognized for my original music contributions by the industry professionals in my music scene, and it has definitely inspired me to keep writing and putting new music out there. I have spent most of 2019 as a performer with Billboard Onboard, the pop piano show aboard Holland America’s luxury cruise ships. However, I am currently putting the finishing touches on my own original piano show, which I will debuting in Australia and New Zealand this November.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I think one of the most important reasons to have diversity represented in entertainment is because it redefines what is considered the “norm”. Pop culture has a trickle down effect on society and people follow and adapt to trends in the entertainment industry. I think women have a harder time convincing audiences, and even (well, especially) people within the industry, that we are “serious musicians”, not just singers and dancers. In the world of piano bars and dueling pianos, I know only a handful of other female performers; even playing in the school band as a high schooler, I was in the minority as a girl. Whenever I sign onto a new performance contract, the automatic assumption is that I’m one of the “new dancers”. So, it really makes my day when I see young girls at my shows, watching me attentively as I play piano and sing. Because it’s showing them, yes, girls can be musicians too. We’re not just there to look pretty on stage next to the guys. Yes, girls can rock and roll too.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I was lucky to have my dad as a mentor as I began (and continue) my career, so he warned me against many of the rookie mistakes young artists often fall into. Still, there are definitely things I would go back and tell my younger self when I was just starting off.

One of the most important things I would go back and tell myself is “know your worth”; when I was just starting out as a professional performer, I had this idea that there were so many other amazing musicians out there in the scene that had been doing it longer than me, that knew more songs, knew more people and that obviously made them better and/or more deserving. So, I said “yes” to every gig. I undercharged. I tolerated a lot of the stereotypical runaround that way too many young musicians experience. I was burnt out; it wasn’t good for my health and took a toll on my vocal chords, sleep and emotions. Looking back, some of that time I spent running around trying to do everything, would’ve been better spent practicing for long term growth.

When I was first starting out, I was super self-conscious about the sound of my own voice; I’m not a pop powerhouse singer. My voice has always had more of unique rasp to it and if I could go back, I’d tell myself to really own the natural timbre of my voice rather than try to sound like something I am not.

Additionally, ever since before high school, I’ve encountered cycles of disordered eating and poor body image. Women already feel immense societal pressure to look a certain way, and of course that is magnified within the entertainment industry. I honestly held his notion that I would never succeed if I wasn’t thin enough and truly believed that was one of the factors holding me back in my career. I wish I could go back and tell myself not to obsess about it so much. I’ve gained weight. I’ve lost weight. My career went on.

This one is big; I wish I could go back and tell myself, and every other young performer out there, to leave 10 minutes earlier for everything. I’m so much better now about being on time, but when I was starting out, I was running late for everything, which honestly, put so much unnecessary stress and pressure on me, and probably the people I was working with and/or for. I thought no one noticed a few minutes, but looking back, you don’t want to have the reputation of being habitually tardy.

Finally, I wish I could go back and tell myself to stop comparing my journey and progress with everyone else’s. There were times I would look at others’ careers and think “why am I not doing that?” or “why am I not there yet?”. Looking back, I’ve surpassed so many of my own expectations while some of those people I was envious of are not even performing anymore. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen — I’ve been doing much better trusting in that lately.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

When you’re an artist, there really isn’t an on and off switch; every thought, decision and action somehow relates back to your work in some way. When things aren’t happening the way you’d like, it can really drive you crazy. It’s not productive and burn out is a common side effect. I’ve learned that sometimes you just need to take a break to come back stronger and focused. You might feel like you don’t “deserve” to treat yourself or relax, but when I switch gears and do something 100% unrelated to my music or career, I’m eager to get back working on my craft, rather than dreading it. It is natural to be your biggest critic as an artist, but you also need to be your biggest cheerleader; no one is going to believe in your art as much as you do.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would involve encouraging young people to truly and apologetically pursue their best lives. I think my generation especially feels trapped by societal norms and expectations — going to the “right” school and having the “right” job and being in the “right” relationship, etc. etc. Honestly, it’s all a big lie; you won’t achieve happiness chasing someone else’s idea of happiness. I wake up every morning in a life, an environment and a career I truly love and I feel so grateful and blessed. But it didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t come without doubts, discouragement and criticism from friends, family and colleagues along the way. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum and regardless of what other people might’ve had to say about it, I kept doing my thing and I’m at a great place in life because of it. I hope I can inspire young people to take the leap, design the life of their dreams and just go for it. If you don’t go for it, someone else will.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ll tell anyone who will listen about my dad’s impact on my life and success. As a professional pianist himself, his most obvious contribution is introducing me to music at a young age and being able to offer both professional and personal support every step of my career. However, my dad didn’t just raise me to be a strong pianist; he raised me to be a strong woman, which is invaluable in an industry that will ruthlessly tear you down and doesn’t have the best track record with sexism. As an undergrad studying government, I once read an article about the lack of female representation in politics; the article suggested that men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and have been culturally trained to see themselves as senators, while women do not. I had to laugh, because throughout my childhood, my dad would constantly say things like “when you’re running for governor” or “when you announce your candidacy for president”. Never once, did I look in the mirror and feel like I couldn’t be a senator, a rock star or anything I wanted to be because the first man I ever knew, and the only man I knew for a while (I attended all-girls school until high school), taught me to take no prisoners and never take “no” for an answer.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was still in high school, my dad said to me, “Do you know there are people sitting around their dinner tables talking about you?” and I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. But now, looking back at all the people I’ve met through performing, through my music education initiatives, through my year of service as Miss Massachusetts, I feel so blessed that I have had the opportunity to truly touch peoples’ lives, in their best and worst times. There are a few examples that come to mind right away — my former piano students who are now in college pursuing music; I was the one who first taught them the notes on the keyboard! Or a man whose mother had recently passed away, yet he found comfort in coming and listening to the piano bar, or the many Facebook messages and emails I get from people telling me I made their wedding/bachelorette party/birthday extra special — and those are the ones I hear about. That quote from my dad always comes to mind — not in a “I think I’m important” sorta way, but in a humbling way; I feel a greater sense of responsibility rather than a sense of power.

I try to stay focused, but I will admit that it is hard to not sometimes become apathetic to something you do every day — even something as special and thrilling as performing on stage. Way more recently than I would like to admit, I was out enjoying a lovely dinner, looked at my watch, and realized I had to hurry up in order to make it to my show on time. I rolled into my venue only a few minutes before I was scheduled to sing my first song, walked on stage slightly perturbed that a show (I thought no one cared about) had cut my evening short and then performed like it was any other night. At the end of the set, an elderly man walked up to me, crying, telling me how much he enjoyed the show and gave me a hug. His family, who was also in tears, explained he had Alzheimers, but certain songs sparked memories for him. I was soon in tears myself and I honestly felt like a spoiled brat for walking into that show annoyed; being a performer is an honor and a privilege and moments like that remind me of this important life lesson my father taught me early on.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could have breakfast with anyone in the world, it would probably be Billy Joel. Growing up around and frequently performing at piano bars, I am obviously huge fan of his work — I know most of his music by heart, I’ve seen him perform live on multiple occasions. But I have so many questions I’d love to ask him — what certain lyrics mean, the thought process behind particular songs, insight into his early days performing at a hotel piano bar. I would love to just talk shop, exchange stories and ask him for advice.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Instagram handle is @alissamustomusic and my Facebook page is www.facebook.com/alissamusto. You can also subscribe to my newsletter on my website, at www.alisssamusto.com.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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