Her debut album will feature production from Dev Hynes, Boi-1da, DJ Mustard, and more.
You might not know Tinashe yet. She probably won't make your year-end lists, and you may have just been introduced to her from her latest single with Travi$ Scott. That's okay, because next year she'll undoubtedly release a re-introduction project that will get people's attention if it's anything like her Black Water project.
Here's why: the 20-year-old Kentucky-born, Chicago-raised, LA-based artist isn't relying on anyone else. She's a DIY-kind of girl, which means she can write, sing, produce, and record all of her own music—and chop up some visuals if she feels necessary. So in October, once she realized her debut album on Sony RCA wasn't going to be ready this year, she locked herself in her home studio and created the 13-track EP, Black Water. She produced most of it, with some obvious exceptions like "Vulnerable" featuring Travi$ Scott, which was produced by Boi-1da.
Black Water, for being put together in just a few weeks, is a stunning project complete with interludes, her breathy, entracing vocals, with standout love ballads like "Just a Taste" and "Fugitive" that reek of '90s contemporary R&B, matched with some gloomy, simplistic production. Those vocals paired with some euphoric production has attracted some of the best producers, and artists, including Chance the Rapper remixed her song "Ectasy" earlier this year, which was off of her Reverie mixtape.
I met up with Tinashe at the Intercontinental Hotel in Times Square while she was in town prepping for her performance at the Knicks game, and working on her debut album, slated for 2014. She's hoping her first single will be the one produced by DJ Mustard, but then again she's lined up work with Ryan Hemsworth, Mike WiLL Made It, Stuart Matthewson, Boi-1da, T-Minus, Dev Hynes, and more, so she's got some options. Then again, she could just go with a self-produced track, too.
Noisey: It's so hard to go from child star to an artist who has control of every aspect of their music. Let's talk about how you started years ago.
Tinashe: I've always been entertaining. And I've always had a love for music, basically for as long as I can remember I wanted to be in music. When I was really young I got into acting and that was sort of just my way of appeasing the entertainer in me until I was old enough to pursue music full-time. At 5, I was in my first movie.
It was called Cora Unashamed and I died, it was so dramatic, like Academy Award death scene in my first movie. I was in a few movies. I was in The Polar Express with Tom Hanks, I was on "Two and a Half Men". When I was 15 I really backed away from the acting thing because I wanted people to take me seriously as a music artist.
How did you get involved in acting in the first place, though? It's not easy to book to a gig like that off the bat.
I've been there in LA since I was 7 or 8, I was born in Kentucky. I only lived there for three months and then we moved to outside Chicago. And then that's where my dad is, he's actually a stage actor. He had an agent in Chicago and he just brought me into his agency one day when I was maybe 3 or 4, and they were like, "She's so cute! We should have her model." I started off modeling and then that just progressed. I acted until I was around 14 and then I joined the girl group.
Right, so how did you link up with The Stunners?
I always knew I wanted to be a solo artist but it kind of just came to me. One of my friends was in the group already and she was like, "They're looking for a fifth member. Would you like to audition?" It was an auditioned group so I was like, "Sure, why not? We'll see where this goes. I'll do it for a little bit." So I joined the group and we were together for four years, which I think was a really great run.
It was a great learning experience. It was a solid run, you know? I definitely got a lot of experience in working in major recording studios, and the recording process, and just touring—because we went on tour with Justin Bieber.
How were the Beliebers?
It was really, really fun honestly. I wasn't really a Justin Bieber fan because I think I was already a little too old by then, I was like 16, I think. But the amazing thing about that tour was his fans were so crazy and they were young. It was like their first concert so they were so excited that they were all there, ready. You know a lot of other concerts people may skip the opening act—every time we performed the stadiums were packed, which was such an amazing experience because there are just so many people there and the energy is incredible. The whole girl group experience was a really great learning experience, and then I went solo almost three years ago. I never really planned on the group being forever.
It was just there.
It was more of like a transitional sort of thing for me. And I think all the other girls sort of viewed it that was as well, which is why we didn't really have like a break-up, we more like disbanded. And everybody still is in entertainment but they're all doing their own different thing.
Once it disbanded, how did you start up your solo career?
I was about 18 when we disbanded and I knew Mike Nazzaro, who's now my manager, we had worked together at Universal Republic. He ran Top 40 department at Universal Republic and when I like disbanded we had been like cool, we were friend. He really jumped at the opportunity when I told him I was starting a solo career, he wanted to become a manager and take it to the next step.
I was like the first project that he was going to manage and I like people who can commit and you know, really have a really vested interest or passion behind my project and my work. I mean, we've been together now for about three years. At the time, I had sort of established a small fan base from The Stunners so I wanted to give them a taste of kind of more of who I was as an artist, because the music was different than The Stunners' music. It was more like bubblegum pop and my music is edgier, darker, R&B, hip-hop. That's why I took it upon myself to create two projects in 2012 and I just made them in my home recording studio.
Your house in Los Angeles has a home studio. Does your family live there, too?
They all moved to L.A. with me. Around the time The Stunners disbanded, I just had some money and I spent it all on putting together a really nice studio at my house, just so I had the ability to record whenever I wanted. I made Black Water in a month. That was how I was able to do that because I woke up in the morning, recorded, and would record all day, work on it all day for a month. I literally was just isolated for a month, did not do anything and I got it just done. I was actually so happy when I was done because now I can enjoy the holidays.
It's there whenever you want it.
Yeah. It was definitely worth my money because I recorded three full projects there. Sony RCA heard the first mixtape and loved it and they wanted to sign me. I really loved RCA for the fact that they appreciated my artistry and respected my opinion as an artist and some people that I presented myself to in the past didn't necessarily get it and I had to explain it to them.
Well, at the time, it seems like people were on this "alt-R&B" trend and this year alone, there's been some amazing, almost classic R&B out.
Yeah, then the very classic kind of R&B was just not cool anymore. It's been this new revitalization of taking some alt-R&B and old R&B and combining them. RCA loved it and they signed me September 2012 and basically all of 2013 I've been working on my debut album so I've just been flying around London, Toronto, Atlanta, New York to work with producers.
Black Water is a 13-track project. It could've been an album, but you're readying your debut for next year. When did the project come together?
I had already been telling my fans that I had a project, or that I was going to come out with my album this year. Around October of this year I was realizing that it wasn't going to come out this year. Trust as an artist is a big thing, because you need your fans to trust you and I didn't really want to go back on my word and like not put out anything. I was just like, "You know what? I’m just going to make a project and put it out this year." So, I just made another one.
Were any of those songs originally supposed to be on the album?
There were a couple, like "Vulnerable," for example was written with the intention of being on the album, but I still recorded that at my home studio. I recorded like them all at my home studio. Boi-1da sent me the beat and then I like wrote it and recorded it.
What was the song that made you decide you wanted to throw together a mixtape in a month all on your own?
It was "Vulnerable" for this Black Water project. I said, "I really want to put this song out this year." I hadn't put something out in a year and I wanted to give somebody a taste of sort of where I was, but still progression. I think that that was a good example of that.
On Black Water, your vocals are so soft but that doesn't define your music at all.
I'm just really inspired by R&B, hip-hop, and alternative music so I just wanted to combine all three of those for the sound. And the type of person I am, I just find darkness interesting in a way. I just love songs that sound like a little crazy, I think it creates an interesting juxtaposition between my voice because it is so bright, and soft, and like pretty, and sweet that I don't want my music to come across sweet or nice. I do like the opposite, so I think of something that's dark and heavy and then I put like sweet and light on top.
Did you write all of the songs on the tape?
Yeah, I wrote Black Water. For me, the main point at the end of the day is to get quality music so while I’m working on my debut album if someone comes to me with a song for example, or some ideas that are just awesome. Then I'm open to using them, I don't feel like limiting myself to just be selfish that I only make all my stuff if someone can make it better. But I'm not limited to having to have other people write my songs. At the end of the day I can still always fall back on myself to write my own stuff.
Where do you usually write a lot of your music?
Actually I write a lot of it in my car, that's just a very inspiring place to listen to music. I think it puts me in the zone. I just I think of melodies usually and then lyrics come after. Sometimes really easily, and then sometimes I'll have a melody for a week before I come up with any lyrics so it just kind of depends.
I know you produced some of the project, too.
I produced a couple of the tracks but it was produced by a variety of people: Boi-1da, Legacy, Dev Hynes, Ryan Hemsworth. Ryan remixed one of my songs from my first mixtape and that was how we had established a relationship. He was working on a project and I was working on a project, he just sent me some beats. We both wanted songs of ours on our separate projects. So we're like, "Well, let's just put it on both."
You flew to Toronto to work with Boi-1da, too. Tell me about those studio sessions.
He sent me the "Vulnerable" track through email, but previously I'd flown to Toronto and we had worked together for a week. We just hung out and had to get to know each other. The first time we worked together, we didn't really come out with anything that was that awesome and I think he's an awesome producer. But sometimes it just takes a minute for people to understand each other's chemistry. And then he eventually sent me the beat that just became "Vulnerable."
I'm curious to hear how you learned production, too. With Wondagurl and Crystal Caines, who both got huge placements this year, there's more women breaking into the production world, which is amazing.
I'm always the type of person who's just very do it yourself. I don't like to wait around for someone else to do it and I don't like to have to rely on other people to do things. I like the ability to be able to write my own songs. I have the ability to make my own music videos. I've taught myself to use a camera, use Final Cut, cut things up andmake my own videos and put them online. Make my own mix tapes and just put them online. That's the same thing with producing, I downloaded Logic and got the little keyboard and just figured out how to produce, basically.
YouTube tutorials helped me figure out the structure because production is really complicated structurally with the different layers of like drum passages. Besides that, I'm one of those people that really figures things out myself. I'm very much like by ear. As a kid I played piano by ear. I had a little bit of vocal training and I used to take piano lessons for a long time. Violin, too.
Now that Black Water is out, are you making your own visuals for it?
I think I'm planning on releasing at least one video. I don't think it would be "Vulnerable." I'm putting out a dance video for "Vulnerable" but besides that, I plan of putting out at least one more video. I just want to do another thing to appease people over the rest of this year because I'm not planning on putting out the single till the top of the year. So I just want to keep the momentum rolling. And the good thing is I mostly have the album done so it's mostly finished.
Let's talk a little about your debut album.
I don't think it's a different sound but I think the good thing about this tape was it showed a progression from my older projects. It doesn't sound like the album. So I didn't give it away, but it's like halfway there. It will be more up-tempo. There's just more rhythm involved. My stuff, in the past has just been a lot more moody and about feeling the vibe.
I don't want to tell you the features yet because I haven't really announced them, I don't want to give them away too soon. But I'm working with Boi-1da, T-Minus, Dev Hynes. I'm working with Stuart Matthewman, he's awesome, and Mike WiLL Made It, too.
Mike WiLL's gone from strip club anthems to pop with Miley, and back again. What did you two create?
We probably made four songs. The first two songs we made were on the pop side. Mostly because he wanted do that. A lot of times when you first start working with somebody, you can cut a song that they're into just because you need to get the vibe right. They want to know usually that you can deliver before they give you something really good. So I'll cut a couple of the more pop songs and then we started to make some, just darker, club sounds. He goes back to his hip-hop roots on the others.
So, when can we expect the album?
Next year. We're putting out singles first. It just depends on the success of the singles, too.
Do you know what the tentative first one will be?
DJ Mustard produced it. Mustard doesn't really have any sounds with females. It's an interesting take on that because it's just cool to hear a girl singing on one of his beats. I think people will be excited because it's more of a club sound so people are gonna want to dance and it's fun. But at the same time it's got my style of vocals over it.
Well, DJ Mustard is huge. It seems like you've worked with everybody, and your album isn't even out yet.
I mean when I first started working with RCA, I gave them a list of my dream team. Actually over the course of the year, I've worked with a lot of them. It didn't happen right away, but they just all sort of just came to fruition however they did. It just fell into place.
Update: Stream Tinashe's first single "2 On" featuring ScHoolBoy Q and produced by DJ Mustard.
Lauren Nostro works at Noisey. She's on Twitter - @LAURENcynthia