Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment and championed by Kendrick Lamar, SZA is the rising New Jersey alternative artist with the emotive sound.
SZA answers the phone with a sense of innocent enthusiasm; the 23-year-old New Jersey soul artist immediately exudes warmth. A late night Skype chat with her feels more like an intimate heart to heart with a close friend than an interview. Experiencing SZA’s soulful and honest lyrics on record inspires a similar kind of trust. Discovered personally by CEO Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith and president Terrence "Punch" Henderson of Top Dawg Entertainment, home to Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, SZA is the first female signing for the cult imprint. Mentored by Dre’s protégé, Compton MC Kendrick Lamar, and collaborating with revered producers Holy Other and Felix Snow, SZA is stepping up to showcase her dream-laced, distorted R&B soundscapes to the world. Solana Rowe aka SZA has been building hype via blogs and touring America as a support act for indie bands Phoenix and Little Dragon, but she has never left her homeland. She was raised with strict religious practices and has worn a hijab for most of her life. Spending her childhood studying hard and holidays at school summer camps, Solana majored in marine biology at uni, but became heavily obsessed with gymnastics under the competitive influence of her Muslim father.
A new way of life presented itself to Solana with the discovery of boys and Bacardi, and when she entered her early 20s, she rebelled. Desperate to taste everything she had abstained from up until that point, she took control of her womanhood and began to express her sexuality with daring style, challenging the morals she had adhered to for so long. While bartending in a strip bar, Solana was forced to mature the equivalent of a decade in little over a year. Discovering a whole new way to communicate with her peers that extended beyond language, Solana quickly came to realise that there were crucial facets of herself that were underdeveloped and with which she was totally unfamiliar. A coming of age and a creative healing process followed, and Solana was able to leave behind the self-loathing she had wrestled with. She was inspired to develop the deeply immersive, ambient and atmospheric sound she has come to own, laying herself bare to unravel melodically, through dark and powerful tracks such as the poetic Euphraxia, in which she chimes, “Try to fight the numbness/ Still don't have an answer/ Figure when l die it will make sense/ Maybe God will answer/ Until then I’m drowning in this world of platitude.”
Wise and disarmingly charming, a quiet sadness lies deep within Solana’s dark brown eyes. But when she laughs, her wide, gleaming smile lights up. Solana feels the world intensely. Beautiful and strong, SZA is a raw artist in the truest sense. She expresses her pain and strife intelligently. The sentiments of her verses stay with you, resonating and connecting mind with soul. More comfortable hanging with her home girls eating popcorn, the self-professed “awkward turtle” is struggling to adjust to life on the road, recently adopting a French Bulldog called Piglet to keep her company. Solana happily natters about anything; speaking on reincarnation she muses: “I’d probably come back as an orangutan or some kind of ape. They’re social and they have this whole community. I’m obsessed with orangutans. They’re so gentle. They’re just chilled. Nothing really bothers them.” The female equivalent of Frank Ocean, with the mass appeal to match, it’s time to get to know the inquisitive soul that is SZA.
“In my head I’m still eleven. I’m still the nerd. I’m still the outsider. I’ll always feel that way, I always feel awkward and don’t know what to say and have weird social timings.” SZA
How are you?
Yeah not too bad thank you.
Has life changed quite substantially for you over the last few months then, day to day?
Yeah, for sure, it’s funny, I used to spend my entire day eating popcorn, I barely have time to eat anything.
Are you enjoying the new pace of life?
I am actually. It’s interesting to, live and die by your own choices. It’s scary, but it’s crazy.
Are you finding that those decisions are forcing you to change and mature quickly?
Absolutely. Or it's just magnifying the fact that I'm secretly five.
What do your friends back home think of all your success?
We’re all just having so much fun. Like, we’re all kind of like waiting for it to feel like work. We come to shows, and go out to dinner and I got a new puppy and we’re all, like, playing with her.
What’s she called?
My new puppy’s name is Piglet.
Awww. What breed is she?
She’s a French bulldog, She’s an idiot but I love her.
If you were an animal, what do you reckon you’d be?
You know what’s crazy? I look at my puppy and laugh all the time and think, ‘’thank God I haven’t come back as my puppy!’’ I’d probably come back as an orangutan or some kind of ape. Honestly, I think an orangutan would be best. They’re social and they have this whole community. I’m obsessed with orangutans. They’re so gentle. They’re just chilled. Nothing really bothers them.
What were the kids you used to hang around with like?
Most of my friends, if they didn’t go to my Muslim prep school, were my neighbours. My next door neighbour Ashley was originally my bully. She bullied me all the way through elementary school. But we’re the bestest friends now, she basically raised me as a kid.
What’s she doing now?
She is a teacher and she’s about to be my DJ.
You were heavily into gymnastics when you were younger. Did you have to train intensively for that?
A lot, a lot, a lot. I went to gymnastics camp. Most of my summer was dedicated to gymnastics camp. I actually was a super camp kid. Every summer I had some sort of camp. I went to this random Jewish camp. Every summer I did a different programme. When I wasn’t at gymnastics camp, I did horseback riding camp or science camp. I did science camp like three times. It was amazing.
What kind of impact did being a gymnast have in the way you related to yourself physically when you were growing up, do you think it was a positive influence?
The crazy thing about gymnastics is I was addicted to gymnastics. On a social level, it’s definitely not the most popular sport. I was the youngest, smallest and the only black girl on my team, so it was weird for me. I still have that same competitive obsession, but I’m more competitive with myself. In gymnastics it’s weird, it’s almost like natural selection, you can only go as far as your body allows you to. You can train really hard but some things I’m just aerodynamically not apt for. Those things taught you to battle yourself. You fight your fears every day and just have to get over it.
You grew up in a religious household, are you still religious? How would you summarise your spiritual values?
In terms of me being religious, l’d say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I’ve been interested in a lot of different religions. Islam has always stuck with me. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I’m into the rigidity. I’m not into the glamour of spirituality. I like the simplistic spiritual element.
You used to wear a veil when you were growing up. Did you resent having this put upon you or do you think it had a positive impact on your understanding of the world?
I think it definitely, definitely altered the way I saw the world. I’ve always stuck by what my dad has taught me, it was the only truth I’d ever known. So if I was walking by a church as a kid, it would be my first instinct to be like, “No I don’t believe in x, y, z. This is what I believe,” then I’d have a pastor tell me that I was going to hell, when I was eight because I didn’t believe in what he believed. I remember going to a secret Santa workshop and shouting, “Santa Claus isn’t real, what the fuck are we all here for?” and getting yelled at, because no one else sees things that way. That brought me closer to my dad and in that way my religion brought an early sense of reality, there is no mysticism in Islam. It’s very clear-cut. There are no songs, no dances, no photos. There are no images, period, in Islam. I guess it all made me a bit pessimistic. I know that there are no extras. That it is what it is and everyone needs to just get over it.
Do you ever miss the clarity and anonymity of wearing the veil and having life be that much more simple?
Yes and no. I think, like every human being, I crave extras. Me, especially, I love excess and extras on everything. Like food with extra cheese, extra everything. I love glitter. It’s funny to have such an opposite reality.
In terms of the way you experience people, it must be quite different going from being a girl in a veil, to a woman wearing whatever you want. How did that process affect you?
I’ve gone full circle. At first I was really into being super modest to the point that I would get mad at all my other friends for looking a certain way. But then I grew up and went to high school and college and I was like, “Fuck this.” I grew boobs, and I went into this really weird phase, in which I wanted to be accepted for being bad. I wanted to be considered as one of the pretty girls. I wanted to wear tight clothes and I pulled my clothes up so high my ass was hanging out. My stomach hurt because my clothes were too tight, and I wore lipstick and my nails were done. I was shiny as fuck, but I was so uncomfortable. It just wasn’t healthy. Now I’m into comfort, and that for me is wearing overalls and baggy shirts and maybe I’ll get a manicure and wear Tiffany studs and a fur coat. But, I don’t really care as much, I don’t feel I have to jump into my jeans and hold up my breasts to be, like, hot on the street.
During that intense period of maturity, when you were able to dress in quite daring ways, is there any defining moment that stands out for you where you realised, as a woman, that you had this incredible power to get people’s attention purely through the way you looked?
I think it was this one outfit that I was wearing, these red high-waisted shorts. They were super short and I had on this skin-tight, purple sweater/shirt thingy with them, which was really tight, and I had it buttoned down, so my boobs were out. My hair was curly, for the first time in public, and I had this mad lip-gloss and a little bit of eye-shadow, and my eyebrows were on-point. I had on these sky-high heels, and I’d shaved my legs. I walked into this party and everyone went crazy. But then I looked in the corner at this girl who didn’t have as much showing; her hair was really simple but clean, and she had a nice manicure and not that much jewellery on, but she had this quiet, inner beauty, and all the boys were just really, really, really into her. But they were coming up to me because I was naked. I realised that that’s the difference, and that none of that shit matters. That girl in the corner had something I couldn’t put on or buy or dress up as. She just was who she was.
And what have you come to learn about your character now?
I take pride in who I am and for a while I wanted to figure out if my style was ok. I’m totally ok with who I am. My style is the thing that makes me who I am. It’s about getting into the culture of who I am, as a human being, letting my life experiences, my culture and my style dictate my identity rather than reading a magazine or looking at Rihanna on TV, and thinking, like, '’shit, I cant afford Marni or Chanel. I cant afford Proenza and other things.’’ Who gives a shit? Just be ill, in the illest way you can and I mean shit, if Proenza is sending you stuff in the mail then I’ll definitely rock it. But as a human being, I can’t afford it.
What happened in the first meeting between you and Kendrick?
The first meeting was me interviewing him back stage at a gig. My friend has a magazine and he was realising that nobody was backstage to do this interview and everyone looked at me like, ‘you’re still inside, you should go’. I was like ‘are you kidding me’ and I’ve never interviewed anyone and I talked over him and it was the worst interview ever. He was just super kind, so sweet and so humble and so chilled, he’s the same way now. He always asks ‘how are you’ and he’s just super kind. He’s the most well rounded person He’s just what everyone thinks he is. He’s awesome.
And who brought you to the attention of Top Dawg execs, Anthony and Terrance?
Anthony and Terrence, I’d have to credit that to my best friend Ashley. My neighbour. She came with me to drop off some TDE merchandise at the time I met Punch and Terrence. I brought my homegirl Ashley with me because I was afraid to go alone and she was listening to this song that I had recorded on Garageband or something ridiculous and she was zoned out. Terence was like ‘what are you listening to that’s taking all your attention from me?’ And he grabbed her earphones and it was me that she was listening to. He said ‘whoa who is this? The voice is really pretty’ and I guess I that’s where it all started. That’s when he was first like “you’re different and I like it a lot.” Ever since then it’s kind of been a homie vibe. Like I see them around not really mentioning anything about music. It’s been the most organic situation ever in life. It’s really funny actually.
Who has inspired your writing the most?
I wish I could say one person has inspired me. Right now mostly everything has been fuelled by self-loathing. It hasn’t even been other people. It has mostly been self-loathing as a teenager or as a kid, l’m purging it all out. That’s me just remembering, carrying everything with me and finally trying to let it go. You can’t hate yourself forever, you can’t be like that forever. I think now it’s just me finally getting it out of my system. Even when I sound frustrated I’m usually frustrated with myself. So, that’s where it all comes from. It may sound like a love song or a sad love song, but it sometimes just comes from a lack of love of oneself.
Is that painful to relive, performance after performance?
Yeah, for sure but it’s almost liberating. Because people find joy in my pain and even though it’s cynical, it’s kind of freeing in the same way. For me the love is coming from the outside in, instead of the inside out; people showing me love makes me feel more confident about loving myself. So performing my music and watching people react to it makes me feel so grateful because I never know for sure how people feel or think. Do they fuck with me? Should I keep going? What am I doing?
Do you separate yourself from the person you used to be?
No. I’m still eleven. I’m still the nerd. I’m still the outsider. I always feel that way, I always feel awkward and don’t know what to say and have weird social timings.
You sound like me.
It sucks but you would know. You and I are just funny people. We’re awkward turtles.