Taken from the winter 2015 issue of Dazed:
It’s a woozily hot afternoon in Los Angeles, and in the midst of hunting for tour toiletries at the mall, burgeoning pop sensation Tinashe has just revealed her unlikely interest in the paranormal.
“Wanna see my ghost hunting photos?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say.
Within seconds, she opens a folder on her iPhone, revealing photos taken at a 13th-century French castle where she captured images of mysterious orbs – reputed in folklore to be angels or pure spiritual energy – and broadcast them to her thousands of fans on Snapchat. The supernatural, it turns out, is a bit of a fixation for Tinashe. We conspire over this unlikely mutual interest, musing over what it all means. We agree that, when it comes to this – and most anything else – possibilities are more interesting than proof. “It’s just a lot of fun to think about!” she concludes.
It’s this delight in the small, strange things that keeps the 22-year-old singer, producer and performer both fascinating and completely unpredictable. While the latest pop generation are children of 90s and early millennial R&B, they have yet to produce a mystical, shapeshifting chanteuse of their own – a Janet, Sade or Aaliyah, or even a Ciara, who feels like a veteran despite only recently turning 30. Heading into 2016, Tinashe is primed to fill this void, with a sound that fuses 20th century pop ambition with an eclectic approach that’s unimpeachably modern. Like fellow post-internet innovators FKA twigs and Grimes, Tinashe doesn’t rely on others to make the music she wants, as proven on four primarily self-produced mixtapes that have earned her acclaim and next-big-thing buzz.
Last year, Tinashe set her ambitions higher, pairing her moody future-soul with trap and dance-pop for her full-length debut album, Aquarius, released on RCA Records. Packed with thugged-out talent like Future, Schoolboy Q, Mike WiLL Made-It and DJ Mustard, the record was a critical favourite and well-rounded pop starter kit, boasting insulin-boosting singles like “2 On” and “All Hands on Deck”. But on forthcoming album Joyride, she raises the stakes still further, leaving behind her niche darling status and daring you to see her as a TRL-level icon of the Tumblr era. Primed for stardom since toddlerhood, the spotlight is hers to take.
A few hours earlier, Tinashe was at KIIS-FM – the west coast’s #1 Top 40 station, and a musical walk of fame in its own right. It’s situated discreetly in an impressively manicured complex near Burbank. A Topless Maids van is parked across the street in front of an anonymous ranch, the type of benign smut that endures nostalgically through LA. Tinashe arrives in a black crop top and high-waisted HLZBLZ pants in a grid pattern, joined by her manager, Mike. She’s here to do an interview to promote “Player”, her new single featuring Chris Brown, before heading to South America to open for Katy Perry. She gives me a hug, then bolts straight into action, reading off station greetings, making goofy intros (“Ryan Seacrest is not dishwasher-safe!”), and breezing through a quick interview with JoJo, the station’s veteran pop DJ.
After hugging a small fleet of people goodbye (it’s the LA way, I learn), we pile into her car, a sleek black Audi she tells me she’s owned since she was 18. Make-up and a plastic bag filled with travel-sized toothpastes spill over in the front passenger seat as I attempt to get in. “Sorry, I was just at the dentist,” she laughs, flashing a conspicuously bright smile as she hops in. In six-inch spiked Givenchy heels, she hits the gas and we head out for the freeway. “We’re going to the Galleria,” she says. Clueless achievement unlocked.
“I’m never satisfied, even though I’m super-happy with the success I’ve had. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I take this to the next level? How can I step this up?’” – Tinashe
On “Player”, a buoyant, synth-spiked tune that’s equal parts Europop sheen and R&B swagger, Tinashe delivers a masterclass of confidence that puts her head-and-shoulders above the pop melee. Joyride as a whole is a tightly produced pop experience, enlisting a cadre of heavy-hitters – Dr Luke, Max Martin’s smash squad, Hit-Boy, Travis Scott – while also reuniting the singer with previous collaborators Dev Hynes, Nic Nac and Boi-1da. As a mission statement, the album is about the beauty of living life in the fast lane. “The best part of life for me is these new experiences,” says Tinashe. “I want it to be exciting, I want it to keep you on your toes, I want people to not know what to expect. It’s the perfect title for this point in my life... I feel like I’m on a joyride all the time. It’s dangerous, it’s an adventure, it’s emotional.”
Suddenly, as if to underline her point, Tinashe swerves dramatically to the right lane to avoid a homicidal driver on the freeway. “I don’t want to die!” she screeches, then giggles nervously. I laugh along stiffly.
I ask her about the symbolism of joining forces with Dr Luke and Max Martin, who between them launched the careers of Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Was she starstruck? “In a way, yeah, because you know they’ve done so many amazing things,” she tells me. “But I’m not easily intimidated. I’m never satisfied, even though I’m super-happy with the success I’ve had. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I take this to the next level? How can I step this up?’ With them, it was the opportunity to be like, ‘This is when I make my number one.’”
In four years, Tinashe has released a steady flow of top-notch material between her official releases, a quickfire CV that includes mixtapes, one-offs, soundtrack spots and guest appearances with artists like Calvin Harris, Drake and Nick Jonas. But her desire to make shit happen runs deeper than creating a content trail. Tinashe – born Tinashe Jorgenson Kachingwe – was always precocious and prolific, the type of child who was curious to try everything. And she excelled at almost all of it. In her LA youth, she sang, acted, played instruments, enrolled in every type of dance, and even earned a black belt in taekwondo. “I was a straight-A student,” she says, but Tinashe wasn’t just another overachiever trying to impress college committees. In fact, she was restless and saw little point in finishing a formal education at all, quitting at 15 to pursue her pop ambitions full-time, with a handful of acting credits already to her name (she appeared aged nine in The Polar Express alongside Tom Hanks). Fame had suddenly beckoned, and in 2007, Tinashe was sought out by pop songwriter Colleen ‘Vitamin C’ Fitzpatrick to become the lead singer of all-girl group The Stunners.
It was a symbolic moment for her family, who are academics at heart. Her mother, Aimie (of Danish, Norwegian and Irish descent), is a physical therapist while her father, Michael, is a professor of theatre at Cal State Pomona. “They’re both educators but they didn’t stress for me to finish college or anything,” says Tinashe as we cruise into Glendale. She even credits her dad, a stage actor originally from Zimbabwe, for giving her the showbiz bug from an early age. “He’s an actor and director – he instilled a love of performing on the stage in me, and never discouraged my dreams or goals.”
But for Michael, the decision was an eye-opener. “We thought, ‘What? No school? That’s all we’ve ever known,’” he explains. “But then we said, ‘OK, you have this window of opportunity right now. School is always going to be there for you if you want to go to school. If you want to go for it, just pursue that dream, we’re gonna support you.’” The Stunners flew under the mainstream for four years, opening for Justin Bieber on the My World Tour, before disbanding in 2011. But the experience was invaluable, and Tinashe quickly transitioned into a career as a solo artist. Her family remains hugely present in her life: she still lives in her childhood home, and only yesterday, the Kachingwe clan was on set for the “Player” video shoot.
The emotional and financial support of Tinashe’s family has also allowed her a rare freedom to take artistic risks – risks that include attempting to defy gravity. During the video shoot for last year’s electro-banger “All Hands on Deck”, Tinashe scaled extreme heights without a harness. So, what goes through your mind when you’re 100ft in the air? “I just think, ‘It will be worth it,’” she replies. “I always know the end result is going to be worth the fear, sweat and anxiety that goes into all this.”
Finally, we arrive in one piece at the Galleria, a sprawling outdoor shopping mall offering no protection from the sun’s torment (the palms, noir-grunge cinematic as they are, don’t really cut it.) Within hours, Tinashe will be boarding a flight, and she needs to shop for some quick travel essentials. Her South American tour wardrobe is set, thanks to stylist Joshua Nixon sourcing “aerodynamic” stage looks from Margiela and Comme des Garçons. The most important thing to Tinashe, he says, is keeping it real: “The idea of pop stars having the most studs, the most glitter and the most contouring, it’s like: subtract all of that and do the opposite. Just be yourself and you’re going to stand out.”
This season, Tinashe attended her first New York Fashion Week, surprising guests at Alexander Wang’s riotous SS16 strip club-themed after-party with a saucy performance that caused the designer – who calls himself a “big fan” – to promptly lose his shit. “I really, genuinely felt like a star, and I don’t feel like a star that often,” she says. Not only was Tinashe front row at key shows, her music was all over the runway. “It was like a dream. But I also got tired really fast. I was like, ‘OK, I’m Fashion Week-ed out!’ after three days.”
Browsing in the aisles today, Tinashe is non-committal towards any particular brands. She’s on the hunt for simple (dare I say, normcore) baseball caps for the beach, and possibly a bathing suit, and she asks for input from me. She sings along with Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” as we finally choose some hats to purchase. No one at the till seems to recognise who she is, keeping the vibe mercifully low-key.
“I don’t feel the need to be super-conservative in my choices or be a typical ‘role model’. I think I can influence girls to be independent – how to make their own decisions, how to go after their goals and not just sit around waiting to get married” – Tinashe
Earlier this year, Tinashe was invited to join Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint tour, a major milestone and strategic audience expander. (“I just connected the dots to people who probably knew who I was, but didn’t take the time to go see me,” she explains.) Though she and Nicki didn’t see much of each other on tour, the rapper told her she loved her music. “The thing I admire most about her is she’s unforgiving. She’s fearless and she doesn’t care, and that comes across on stage.”
As we stroll through a lite jazz-accompanied food court, I tell her Minaj said she wants to make $500 million and be as famous as Jay-Z. Is commercial success important for her too? “Yes, but not in a super-literal way,” she says. “I don’t really care about making a lot of money, but I care about being the most successful. I don’t necessarily consider dollar signs the most successful. You shouldn’t get into the music business because you’re trying to get rich – there are so many career goals that are way easier, way less work, way less stress, and you’ll make way more money.”
There’s a touch of crankiness to her tone; perhaps the spike heels weren’t such a good idea for the mall. She groans as we head down a spiral staircase, her limbs aching from yesterday’s marathon video shoot.
I was there to watch, on the pristine top floor of the AT&T building in downtown LA, amid a flurry of dancers, caterers, make-up artists and RCA execs excitedly pacing the set. Tinashe prowled around the airy white studio, her skin glistening lightly under fierce lights, and sized up a delicately muscled young man in stylishly thin braces and black trousers. They swooped and collided, interlocking their bodies into an elegantly aggressive embrace. For hours, Tinashe morphed from coquettish to predatory in a flesh-toned Wolford bodysuit and archival black Margiela leggings, pausing between takes to roll them up strategically on her petite frame. Later, she showed me how long they actually are – a leg inseam the length of a whole Olsen – and explained that Nixon picked them out for their avant-garde look. They fit the theme. “Player” reinvents the dance-off, mixing martial arts and parkour-level moves with athletic versions of ballet, tango and Latin ballroom dancing.
“Smashed it!” screamed British director Emil Nava, the man behind recent hit videos by Pusha T, Tove Lo and Calvin Harris, as cheers erupted on-set. The shoot’s concept came together in a few days, but Tinashe’s seemingly effortless performance is an elegant mirage, the result of years of training.
“The idea was hers,” says JaQuel Knight, Tinashe’s choreographer. “She wanted to show that she could do Latin ballroom, she wanted to show that she could do contemporary. She’s a chameleon, she can become whatever she needs to be. She’s not afraid to get in there and dance all day. There’s no diva behaviour. She’s always asking, ‘How can I do this better?’” He even compares her to his most famous client. “You know, Beyoncé is the only other person like that! Their work ethic is so similar.”
Also like Queen Bey, perhaps, Tinashe is nostalgic for a time when performers could dance as well as they could sing. “Growing up, that performance element was half the reason I loved music!” she exclaims. “Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Britney... I loved watching videos and learning the choreography. I want little girls to see my video and say, ‘Oh my God, I wanna learn those steps!’ All their friends would have a sleepover and try to figure out the routine, like I used to!”
“I originally (produced) out of necessity – now it’s more a fun outlet to put some shit out there without the drama, a way through the politics of it all” – Tinashe
Tinashe already has a big share of young female fans who study her every move, in more ways than one. She feels the eyes on her, but refuses to see herself as an idol or censor herself. “I feel like I can inspire people in other ways. I don’t feel the need to be super-conservative in my choices or be a typical ‘role model’. I think I can influence girls to be independent – how to make their own decisions, how to go after their goals and not just sit around waiting to get married to someone who can help build their careers. Take control as a woman: you can create that lifestyle for yourself!”
It’s an example she sets in remaining fiercely self-possessed and in control of her art, whether she’s going it alone or heading up a team of collaborators. “My ultimate aspiration isn’t to be the next Timbaland,” she says when I ask how her production skills fit into the bigger picture. “I originally (produced) out of necessity – now it’s more a fun outlet to put some shit out there without the drama, a way through the politics of it all.” While Joyride has its share of HD club-ready tracks, that supernaturalist side – her inner seeker – shines through on her midnight slow jams, infusing them with a ghostly sensuality. Tellingly, her favourites are two she made alone, “Soul Glitch” and “Coldish”. “You could be my +1,” she sings wistfully on “Touch”, while on “Party Favors”, a slinky tease of a track, she reunites with Toronto producer Boi-1da, who has been working with her since her Black Water mixtape. “Always knew Tinashe would be a superstar from day one!” he says over email.
She may not feel like it yet, but Tinashe has all the makings of a Gen-Z superstar: entrepreneurial and quick to adapt, aiming for the big time from the comfort of her childhood bedroom. When she returns from tour, she’ll be “in a t-shirt watching the Kardashians” and eating her dad’s home-cooked macaroni – just another 20-something homebody kicking back with her family. “People don’t know how un-Hollywood it really is,” she says of her life off-the-grid. But then she’ll check Instagram and see 34,000 notifications. “If I’m not online for a minute, they’re like, ‘Where have you been? I miss you so much!’”
Even here, in the seeming anonymity of the Galleria, Tinashe can’t escape attention for long. Before we part, we take a photo together and everyone around us stares. Something seems to click. Shoppers suddenly flock to her in recognition, asking if she is who they think she is – and can they get a photo? One adoring young man pulls out his earbuds and says, ‘Guess who I’m listening to right now?!’ and puts them up to Tinashe’s ear. She plays along. “No way!” she exclaims as she listens to herself, and shakes his hand, flashing her megawatt grin patiently to everyone who comes up to her. She said it herself: it’s worth it.
Joyride is out January 2016
Hair Tomo Jidai at Streeters using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Kanako Takase at Tim Howard Management using M.A.C, nails Traceylee for The John Barrett Salon, photographic assistant Sam Nixon, fashion assistants Katy Fox, Victor Cordero, digital operator Gunnar Tufta
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