in conversation

TeaMarrr and Issa Rae Just Want to Be Influenced

Published October 27, 2020

Photos by Jabari Jacobs.

TeaMarrr is quickly becoming one of the most delightfully surprising voices in music. The Haitian-American singer caught the attention of many when she released her first official EP as an independent artist, Thanks for the Chapstick, in 2017. Her sound oozed confidence and charm, accompanied by hazy and hypnotic lyrics. In 2019, she was reintroduced to the world as the first artist to sign to Raedio, the music label founded by the writer, director, actor, and producer extraordinaire Issa Rae. In honor of her latest EP, Before I Spill Myself, TeaMarrr and Rae caught up to discuss music, Insecure, and making art that’s at once personal and universally relatable.

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ISSA RAE: Hey, Tea!

TEAMARRR: Hey! How are you living in this pandemic?

RAE: Girl, I just went to Laguna to try to get out of my house, but I booked a shitty hotel, so I gotta move. I did this wrong.

TEAMARRR: Vacation went south?

RAE: Vacation went south, but I’m going to fix it. After I’m done for today, I’m going to get my little refund and just bounce. How are you doing?

TEAMARRR: I’m good. I’ve been taking these self-care bubble baths. They’ve just been giving me life. Remember when we were talking about CBD and you were like, “Does that even work?”

RAE: Yes, I do. So you’ve been doing CBD bubble baths?

TEAMARRR: CBD with a little bit of THC. I think the THC gives it that oomph, but the CBD is good for you. That’s what they say.

RAE: Does the hot water heat the THC and does the steam get you high?

TEAMARRR: Yeah. The THC goes into my pores. It’s in the water.

RAE: Oh, good.

TEAMARRR: I’m trying to find new ways because smoking is so bad for the vocals, and I don’t do edibles. They don’t work. So it’s like, “Girl, figure it out.”

RAE: Edibles don’t work for you?

TEAMARRR: I don’t think so. Maybe I have to try a month of no weed at all and then try edibles, but they’ve never worked.

RAE: This is the best time to do that. Just experiment with edibles.

TEAMARRR: I was making Rice Krispies from scratch, trying to get my bakery off the ground.

RAE: Are you for real? 

TEAMARRR: Yeah, I want a bakery shop with goodies and tea stuff. And then I want a swim school for inner-city kids.

RAE: Can you swim?

TEAMARRR: Yeah. I swam competitively in high school, and I taught kids how to swim as an instructor in college. Can you swim?

RAE: Yes, I did it in high school. I was always in last place, but I got better.

TEAMARRR: Oh my god. Me too. I was second-to-last all the time. We did a mock meet once, where we practiced challenging some other team, and that was the only game that we won all season, the game that didn’t count.

RAE: That’s really fucked up. Unbelievable. I’m so happy that another Black girl got second-to-last place because I felt like I wasn’t holding it down. But anyway, let’s talk about your EP because it’s out. It feels like “Chasing Amy” is the breakout hit right now, and I know that you were touring with it. That was the track that everybody was thirsty to find out about. “What was that song called, girl? What was that?” I’m sure you weren’t surprised, but why do you think that people resonate with this song so much?

TEAMARRR: I think it’s because it’s so relatable. I feel like I was at my most vulnerable state. It wasn’t even supposed to be a song. I was going to send it to a boy, but then I spit it over some production and it really just clicked. It’s so relatable to every girl, but at the same time is hella personal to me. Also, it’s like, “girl, are you reading my diary?”

RAE: I like this new sound. I think it’s relatable because everybody feels like you’re reading their diary and it’s also open to interpretation. Obviously, you’re a singer, but one of the other things that I love about you is that you have legit bars. You’re a singing rapper to me. I know Amy Winehouse was a big inspiration for you, but did you think about any other artists while making this EP?

TEAMARRR: I thought about what some artist’s reactions would be. I’m like, “I wonder what that did for Drake.” Andre 3000—I would love to watch his reaction to something of mine. When we’re in the studio, me and Kareem [TeaMarrr’s manager] were always like, “Ooh, this has that Biggie feel.” He’s always pointing out where my influences fall. So we always like to plant those seeds whenever we see them. Like, “Okay, decorate this,” or “Hide this a bit more, because it’s too on the nose.”

RAE: “Decorate this?” I’ve never heard that terminology. Decorate it lyrically?

TEAMARRR: Vocally or lyrically, depending on what it is. If it’s a lyric that sounds too much like one of my influences, he’ll say, “You got to tweak a bar or a line here.” And if it’s a melody that sounds too much like one of my influences, he’s like, “You got to change how you’re vocally coming off on this.” Sometimes people say I sound like Jessie Reyez. I’ve actually heard stuff in my drafts and been like, “Let’s change that. That’s too close and reminds me of her.” I want to remain as original as I can, but I’m so influenced.

RAE: Aren’t we all? As a writer, obviously I have my own style, but sometimes you see and get excited about other writers and artists and it infiltrates your own style. You want to make something as good, and you want to put your own spin on it. It’s interesting that you mentioned Jessie Reyez because I’m sure it’s not intentional, but you’re just building off of the ecosystem around you.

TEAMARRR: What about you? How do you come up with your character on Insecure? I know she’s Issa, but how do you differentiate the two?

RAE: She’s younger than me, so I think about all the shit that I went through in certain relationships. Sometimes they’re evolutions of current friendships, past relationships, things like that. And of course, we have a writer’s room. I love to use other people’s business. Do you ever still listen to your friends’ stories and put them in your songs?

TEAMARRR: Definitely. I had to steal from one of my friends. She knows. She appreciates it, but she’s just like, “Thanks Tea, but I can’t sing these words.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry that I capitalized off your situation. I didn’t mean to, but you were hitting me up during a session. Well, what am I supposed to do? I mean, come on.” I remember you said you love “Done.” What do you love about it?

RAE: For one, it’s just beautiful. Again, I think you and Kareem are such a dream team. You got him to co-write it?

TEAMARRR: Yeah, we wrote that together.

RAE: I felt like this was a song about being done. I’m a double dipper—I’ve told myself that so many times: “This time I’m done,” but I always go back. In the moment, I relate to it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. It’s such a different vibe from the other songs. It stands out. 

TEAMARRR: Right. It’s like, “Okay, y’all keep calling me R&B. Let me give you R&B.” Let me give you what you want.

RAE: “Cry Baby” features one of my best friends, your dad, on the intro. You’re a daddy’s girl without a doubt. What does that mean for your outlook? Are you looking for a man like him? Does he come to mind at all while you’re dating?

TEAMARRR: He comes to mind always. The guy I’m dating reminds me of him in ways. He listened to “Cry Baby” and now he calls me [my real name] Thamar, which is annoying. But it’s also subtly like, “Okay. Take me home. Make me feel like home.” My dad is a musician and wanted to be a rockstar—that’s what I am. So having my dad on it is super legendary to me. He’s a little upset at you with the intro to season four [of Insecure]. He’s like, “Oh wow, Issa.”

RAE: He can join my dad. My dad does not fuck with Issa. I’m just like, “Whatever. What do you want me to do?” What about your mom?  Is she feeling a way? You’re out here casting your dad on the album. She doesn’t want any part?

TEAMARRR: She’s on a song already, but it’s super sad. I’m trying to liven up the production and tweak some of the melodies. It’s more album than EP type of vibe. I don’t know if you’ve heard “Red Flags.”

RAE: I don’t think I’ve heard it. I’ve gotta re-listen to it. Well, I’ve asked you this in our little listening session, but I think about who you think this is for. You make this music for yourself, but who is listening and who needs to hear this?

TEAMARRR: Everybody that ever tried it. You know?

RAE: [Laughs] Tried it in what sense?

TEAMARRR: I feel like all my music is for anybody that’s ever tried it. People just were so mean to me. I’ve been bullied so much, so I do feel very powerful in the sense that god put me in those places. It’s like he’s saying, “I put you through hell. I understand that they called you ‘darkness falls’ when you tripped and fell. That’s gonna haunt you as you grow older, but you’re going to be somebody, and that’s all. That stuff’s not going to matter one day.” I understand that. I still can’t get over “darkness falls,” but I’m here, you know?

RAE: Who said that and where are they in life?

TEAMARRR: This boy I had a crush on in middle school. I don’t know what he’s doing, but he has two kids and a wife. And I think he’s recovering from something. I don’t know. I don’t want to get into the petty.

RAE: You already did. You did it. You’ve said enough.