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TinashePhotography Dennis Leupold

Tinashe’s long ride to success

‘Labels, restrictions, they hurt people and they bind us’: the multi-talented artist on how the music industry has tried (and failed) to pigeonhole her

Nursing her second mimosa of the day, Tinashe is seated comfortably in a booth at New York’s Roxy Hotel. Dressed simply in an oversized white tee and baggy sweatpants, she seems unflappable. Her face is unmade, poreless, and angular. If she’s nervous about doing press for her long-delayed second album Joyride, it doesn’t show – instead, she embodies a woman with undoubted talent and a purposeful plan.

Her calm demeanour is at odds with the portrayal we often see of Tinashe in the media: a pop star caught in an endless game of musical chairs. In 2014, her DJ Mustard-producer hit “2 On” positioned her as pop music’s next big thing. She released her debut album Aquarius, and swiftly announced its follow-up, Joyride. But the project stalled. In September of 2015, with still no Joyride in sight, Tinashe released “Party Favors”, a smoky club banger featuring Young Thug. A month later, she debuted Joyride’s lead single “Player”, followed by “Superlove.

Still, the Billboard barometer for acclaim continued to elude her. This fixation on chart success not only rules record label expectations, but the internet at large: online commentators are quick to brand artists a flop, even though their definition of ‘success’ is a very narrow one. In Tinashe’s case, there were rumours that her label mishandled her release, focusing too much of their attention on other labelmates. Tinashe responded accordingly, promoting her art independently (she admitted to leaking “Party Favors” herself) and self-funding music videos. In November 2016, she released Nightride, a project that demonstrated what Tinashe’s abilities look like when executed without compromise, reorienting loose singles like “Company” and “Party Favors” into an exquisite, softly lit body of work.

Now, after three years of setbacks, Joyride is finally out. Comprised of 13 tracks, it’s a genre-fluid project filled with promise. On “Ain’t Good For Ya”, she raps over flutes in a breathy staccato. On “Stuck With Me” she morphs seamlessly with Little Dragon, and on the title track “Joyride”, she shows you why she’s a pop star without peer: a singer, writer, dancer, producer, and engineer. Without pretense, mimosa in hand, she discusses how the music industry has tried (and failed) to pigeonhole her, and how she’s found freedom in deciding to no longer care.

I read that you recorded over 100 songs for Joyride. How much has the project changed since you first started it?

Tinashe: It’s evolved so much. I made over 200 songs, and a lot of the material has been re-worked and enhanced. This version is definitely the best one.

What’s been the biggest hurdle in creating and releasing your art?

Tinashe: There’s (been) a few things. From a business perspective, (one hurdle has been) the idea that hits drive albums, and having to chase hit-making formulas in order to put out my project. I really feel I’m an album artist, that I create worlds and universes and sonic environments – that’s where I know I thrive. To have that minimised, with this idea that one song is supposed to pop the fuck off, is reductive to me. But it’s something I have to deal with in terms how I’m able to even put certain projects out.

The other biggest hurdle is constantly being miscategorised – people trying to put me in a genre or particular boxes that I have an aversion to, and me being stubborn and not wanting to be defined by boxes.

We live in a world that’s hyper-focused on divisions and on labels. Do you think your versatility and variety is difficult to process?

Tinashe: It’s always confusing because my core elements have never changed. In 2011, I was making songs like “Chainless”, which doesn’t sound that distant from “2 On”. And then I made mixtapes in between, and people forgot about my other material. They forgot about the fact that when I was 14-16, I was in a girl band (The Stunners) making strictly pop music. I’ve always been interested in various genres. People are able to have multiple layers, they’re able to be well-rounded and well-versed, nothing has to be limited, especially music. I strive to showcase that.

You’ve been verbal about your ambitions to follow in the footsteps of supremely visible and talented pop stars. Artists like Beyoncé, Michael, and Janet, those well-rounded artists that eclipse simple entertainment. How do you think that model of a pop star would fare within the current zeitgeist?

Tinashe: I think it’s almost detrimental in this day and age, like a sort of, ‘Oh, you’re super talented? We don’t like that. That’s not what we want to see!’ For me, it was such an important part of my childhood. I love well-rounded entertainers, that was my shit! Watching concerts, watching the music videos, and learning the choreography – my days were filled with those things. The art and thought that went into their visuals and all these elements which make someone an entertainer, it was obvious that this was what I had to do. I didn’t care if it was on trend or not, it’s always been important. It’s still important for me to be that all-encompassing entertainer, and to bring that to young girls who want to dance or watch the music video for choreography.

I don’t know how these iconic entertainers would do these days, because music is so disposable and there’s too much volume. Those entertainers had a certain level of mystery. It was a completely different era. The only thing I can do is continue to navigate the music industry and the era that we’re in. It’s always shifting and changing. I think the music industry is in a really interesting place right now in terms of streaming and where it will go in the future. Will albums still be a thing? All of these questions are up in the air. Right now (I’m) just continuing to make the best art and focusing on that, and wherever I fall into the public spectrum at this point, I’m kind of throwing my hands in the air. I’m at a place where I’m in flow with the universe and wherever it decides to take me, it takes me.

“From production, to engineering, mixing, and the executives that work in these companies, the industry is almost exclusively male-driven. For more women to thrive, it’s important that we’re behind the scenes as well” – Tinashe

Do you care a little bit less?

Tinashe: I think I do, for sure. Which has really been healthy. I think what’s important is to care most about the art. If I feel the most confident in my projects, in what I’m doing, and if I’m making high quality, multi-layered projects, the rest of it doesn’t matter any more to me. From live shows, from music videos, or sonic production, if I know I’m doing the best I can, I don’t care. As long as I’m able to continue to play shows, maintain my business, and make more albums,then I’m good.

In your Complex cover story, your brother detailed what it was like for you growing up as a girl in a predominantly white space. He talks about the ways in which you were alienated and couldn’t fit into modes of popularity, comfort, or community. Are you looking for acceptance?

Tinashe: It was interesting, because growing up very young in a mixed race family, at the time I felt very much an acceptance of everything I was. There was a vast amount of love in my home. I didn’t have to be anything except what I wanted, what I dreamt. I didn’t have to fit in with one side of my family or another, everything made sense. It wasn’t until I started growing up and it became more apparent that I was being singled out for very specific things, that I started to lose that. There were things like my hair. I still have the most vivid memory of being in seventh grade straightening my hair for the first time. One of the popular kids said, “Oh my god, you look so much better now.” And it seems silly now, but moments like that truly affected me. That idea that they thought I looked better with straight hair… I started doing that for years. I damaged my natural curls. There’s something to be said for what happens to people who grow up in environments that are incredibly restrictive.

It’s been interesting to see how much that’s evolved and manifested itself into my music. How still, I’m constantly placed in urban categories instead of being considered a pop act. How people are hesitant to call me an R&B singer. I’ve learned you just have to own all the things you are. And I’m not the only person who feels this way. These worlds are intersectional – music, politics, identity, all of them are intertwined. Labels, restrictions, they hurt people and they bind us. People can be and always have been multiple things. My music is an expression of that.

You not only sing and write, but you produce and sound engineer. Can you take me through the distinction?

Tinashe: When you go into a recording studio, you typically have producers, writers, and then engineers. The producers, they make the beat – they go into programs like Logic and they create music. The writer, obviously, writes the music. And the engineer does the recording of the music: the editing of the specific lines, stacking the vocals, harmonies, mixing each level of the vocals. It’s something that’s crucial to how a song turns out. It’s very male-dominated. I’ve worked with hundreds of male engineers and maybe two female engineers. Learning how to engineer was a huge asset. I was able to really create my own story and tell my perspective.

When you come into the scene as a new artist, if you’re not able to do certain things on your own, there are so many people that think they know best. They have an idea of what works, and if you can’t express yourself from a technical standpoint, it’s easy to be dismissed and silenced.  I knew if I learned, it would be an advantage, I knew I’d have more control if I could make exactly what I wanted without having to explain it to someone. It’s also easier – people understand things better once they’ve heard it.

That’s one of the biggest things I try to hammer home in my art: more women need to be involved through all levels of creativity. From production, to engineering, mixing, and the executives that work in these companies, the industry is almost exclusively male-driven. For more women to thrive, it’s important that we’re behind the scenes as well, because that representation affects the output of material.

When you spoke with The Guardian, your comments about Beyoncé and Rihanna were sensationalised and placed out of context in the headline. What did you mean about their positions in the music industry?

Tinashe: What I meant by Beyoncé and Rihanna is that they are the pinnacle of success. When people look at artists today, if they haven’t reached that level of success, then they’re deemed failures. That’s what I meant, and that’s how I feel. It’s an unfair dialogue. Even for people to compare new artists to the best of the best, artists of tenure, legacy, and stature – it’s absurd. People don’t understand there’s a growth process, that even the biggest artist had to grow, and it took years for them to achieve these amazing feats. To be continuously torn down or mocked for not reaching those levels of fame and acclaim is detrimental to someone’s psyche and how they create. It’s definitely had an effect on me.

For me, there are so many artists that I respect and love that aren’t the biggest artists in the world. How do you navigate that? Imagine how those people feel? Some of the best artists are incredibly underrated. I’m learning that I have to respect myself. I’m still doing this. I’m in a blessed space able to do what I love, to create art for a living, to maintain business endeavours. Sometimes the internet will try to invalidate that and you almost believe it, but my fan base is my fan base, and that can’t be undermined because it’s not the whole universe. It’s still important.

Do you think the little you would be proud of you today?

Tinashe: I think so. The interesting (thing to) me is that the little me had such high expectations and the loftiest dreams. The fact that I didn’t hit all of the marks when I said I would has shown me that life isn’t always how you plan it. I learned it’s important to carry on and know that sometimes when you don’t reach your expectations at a time when you want them to doesn’t mean they won’t happen. I have realised that I’m living little me’s dream. That this is it, it took me a while to understand that, for that weight to truly settle in. This is what I’ve been dreaming of my whole life. Touring. Shows. Music videos. Releasing albums. I’m in it. I’m here.