ABOVE: SZA. PHOTOS BY YANN BEAN
A couple of years ago, SZA was completing a degree in marine biology, with no aspiration of becoming a singer because she "didn't fit the stereotype. " She describes the process of recording her first EP as "accidental." And yet, a year later, she is the first female singer to sign to Top Dawg Entertainment, home to Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q.
Born Solana Rowe in St Louis, Missouri, and later relocating to Maplewood, New Jersey, the artist's stage name, "SZA," is an acronym inspired by the Supreme Alphabet ("I appreciate it's quite artsy and conceptual", she apologizes). Her first two EPs, See.SZA.Run and S, featuring producers of the moment Emile Haynie and Holy Other, became blog favorites, impressing listeners with her slick yet vulnerable R&B sound.
Ahead of the release of her next EP Z, and her first New York dates supporting Swedish electro band Little Dragon, SZA took some time out to chat about being a part of the Top Dawg family, her orthodox Muslim upbringing, and why she never dreamed of being a singer.
HOLLY RUBENSTEIN: How would you sum up your signature sound in a sentence?
SZA: Gosh, I've never even thought about that before! I'd say a clusterfuck of my upbringing and life. Maybe like a Bar Mitzvah mixtape.
RUBENSTEIN: Why was your upbringing so influential?
SZA: When your parents regulate everything you hear and everything you intake, it forces you to get creative in other ways. It sparked the writing bug and the very overactive imagination. Because I've had a lot of time by myself and a lot of time isolated from regular culture, I created my own.
RUBENSTEIN: Why were you isolated?
SZA: My parents are really conservative. My dad is Muslim, and my mom is the most conservative woman you've ever met. They're very aristocratic in the most quaint suburban way.
RUBENSTEIN: You used to wear a hijab growing up?
SZA: I wore it all through elementary and middle school. During Ramadan, I fasted with my dad. I wore baggy clothes a lot, and my dad made that a really big point.
RUBENSTEIN: Do you still like to dress conservatively?
SZA: I guess it's not consciously conservative. But I love being comfortable, so I do wear baggy clothes.
RUBENSTEIN: Did music play a big part in your childhood?
SZA: We'd eat oatmeal in the morning and listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane. A lot of it was classic jazz. We'd replay each CD 30,000 times. The album that defined my childhood was probably Ella Fitzgerald's Greatest Hits, whereas my half-sister, who didn't have the same conservative upbringing, was listening to Cash Money and crunk.
RUBENSTEIN: What can we expect from your next EP, Z?
SZA: A completely different level of insight in myself. I wasn't rushed or afraid. I had vocal freedom. It's like I ran out of shit to say, which forced me to dig deeper. It's funny because I get to choose all these crazy producers who I never got to work with before, so I'm getting to know myself around some of the most creative minds ever.
RUBENSTEIN: And when can we expect to hear A, to complete the trilogy?
SZA: It's crazy because everything is moving so out of order and so unexpectedly. I had this cute little neat plan and it's totally out of whack now. I'm going to finally drop some visuals because I haven't released a music video in like, ever. There are a lot of new doors to walk through. I'm recording more right now than I ever have.
RUBENSTEIN: How have you felt about the positive reaction to your first EPs?
SZA: It's definitely a surprise. I don't listen to my own music, so to me it's awesome that people really like it. I was afraid that it wouldn't connect with everyone. I'm more appreciative than anything.
RUBENSTEIN: Tell me about the moment you decided you would make music your full-time career?
SZA: I thought for a long time that my full-time career would be in marketing, or an office job. I've always wanted an office job so I can tell someone, "I'm going to take a long lunch," or "I'm out of the office." I don't know why, but I've always seen so much stability in clocking in.
RUBENSTEIN: Have you always wanted to be a singer as well?
SZA: There were people around me growing up, rapping, going hard, and I would look at them and think, shit, this looks so tough. This is so much work and I'm so lazy and lack discipline. Singing was more of a hobby, and I was terrified of anyone's opinions. The only reason I kept doing it was because people responded positively, and if they hadn't I don't really know if I'd feel the same. I'm not into fighting for people's affections.
RUBENSTEIN: In the back of your mind, did you dream of being a successful singer, though?
SZA: In the back of my mind I wanted to be a scientist or work in an advertising firm. I would always come up with these random ditties on the train, and I was like, "Man, I can write one hell of a jingle." Music was so far from where my head was.
RUBENSTEIN: How did it feel to be the first singer, then, to sign to Top Dawg Entertainment?
SZA: The actual day that I signed the papers, I didn't do anything. I didn't have the reaction that most people would have had. I didn't celebrate at all. I was too afraid to experience the excitement, out of fear that it would go away. I thought the papers may mysteriously combust, or the lawyer's office could burn down!
RUBENSTEIN: Do you feel a part of the TDE family now?
SZA: Yeah, I do actually. It took me a little while to get past being nervous. I'd sit in the car with everyone and not say a single word except hi, and then bye, two hours later! I was afraid to not be cool enough, to be corny. They're honestly just like a family so you have to take everything with a grain of salt. They joke a lot... hard. You have to have thick skin all the time.
RUBENSTEIN: Does that mean we can expect some TDE collaborations?
SZA: Yes, soon!
RUBENSTEIN: What genre would you like people to describe your music as?
SZA: It's almost like a running joke at this point. People have called me every genre, but I have no idea! I want people to get out of that nasty habit of needing a label. Every genre for each song is different.
RUBENSTEIN: What are your plans for the next few months?
SZA: I'm on a mini tour with Little Dragon, which is like a dream as they're one of my favorite bands, ever. I'm also working on some fashion stuff and getting some videos knocked out the way.
SZA PLAYS WITH LITTLE DRAGON TONIGHT, OCTOBER 23, AT BOWERY BALLROOM AND TOMORROW, OCTOBER 24, AT MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HER WEBSITE.