sza's got brooklyn in tears but she's jumping for joy
“It’s getting so hard for me to hold back tears and keep singing right now!” neo soul singer SZA confessed to the jam-packed audience Rough Trade’s Brooklyn outpost Tuesday night. But she wasn’t the only one feeling a little misty. Whether waiting...
Photography Zach Wolfe
i-D's first interview with Top Dawg Entertainment's (the same label boasting the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q) first female signee was last November. It might not seem like a long time, but a lot can change in six months. SZA released her first commercial EP Z in April, a ethereally seductive and emotionally honest record that set itself far apart from R&B's more conventional emotional paradigms. Lyrically laced with complex shards of childhood nostalgia, Z's overwhelmingly positive reception has blazed SZA on an unstoppable path, but one that's in her own overall-clad, Haribo-munching, Bjork-blasting lane. So nice we did it twice, i-D caught SZA backstage to talk life after Z.
How has life changed for you since Z's release?
The amount of people who are aware of me is probably the most apparent change. I'm never really aware of who's aware of me, so when I came to the venue two hours ago and there were already people outside waiting to get in, I was not prepared! I went to American Apparel before that, and I just ended up taking pictures with people all throughout my shopping experience, it's just crazy. I don't go out a lot, I'm not a shopper or a partier - well I eat a lot, but usually it's in the dark alone or places that people never really go! So when being recognised like that happens, it's still so surreal. Like, you want to take a picture with me? Are you sure?
What has even greater success taught you about other people and yourself?
I think it just magnifies who you already are, but on a very large scale. I was worried that I was secretly a bitch or something, and I didn't know, but I would find out when the world found out. That was my big fear when Z started blowing up. And I definitely have an even amount of bitch, but the negatives aren't as magnified as I thought they would be, which means I think waaaay worse about myself than people think of me. And that's kind of relieving!
Can you speak a little bit about the role of childhood nostalgia in Z? That Pepper Ann shout out on "Warm Winds" is my favorite. She was the homie.
Oh now she was the shit, the shit. She was so dope. Her hair was everything! People always say it's important to live in the present, but I think I live in nostalgia. It's really all over Z. I don't know what I was doing all this time but I don't know, I lived my life as a child but it doesn't feel like I was really there. Now, I'm really taking this opportunity with my music to take a step back and just sort of look through everything. To ask myself what's really going on? Who am I?
You've often spoke about your parents and your strict upbringing, the challenges you've faced with coming to understand each other as people as you've gotten older, and how they're getting to know you all over again in a different way through your music. What things do you think Z has taught them about you?
I think if my parents were confused before, Z has brought that to a different level. They have no idea who I am. They're just trying to figure out like, "where did this come from?" "I had no idea you sang," none of that. I think at first they thought it was a hobby, "oh that's a nice hobby, but it never happens." My Mum is such a realist and has always thought that it doesn't happen for anyone, and that's what I always thought too. There's so, so many people that almost make it, and was so resigned that I was never gonna be the one.
Have there been any specific moments over the past eight months when you've just stopped what you're doing and thought "Damn. This is really something"?
It usually happens after a run of things I do one after another. Probably after this summer ends and I've done all these shows, I'll sit on the beach and just start thinking "what is life," "what is up with my life?" This is so nuts! I remember the last time that happened, I just broke out into tears. It was right after I did this show for Converse, right after it had just been announced that I was signed to TDE. Before that, I literally couldn't feed myself. I was dealing with trying to save a banana for lunch and dinner. My life just changed completely and I couldn't believe it. Because again, stuff like that never happens to me, ever. I've never won anything in a sweepstakes, I've never pulled a raffle, so I've never been the one to believe "you never know," you know? I'm like "uh, no bitch," that shit never happens! So I think this is the opportunity that's showing me maybe I shouldn't really think like that.
You recently released a new video for "Julia." How much creative control do you exercise over your videos?
Oh my god, so much! I'm obsessed. By the end, everyone hates me. But it sucks because in the middle I'm always thinking, "Damn, am I going to ruin this relationship or am I going to have a shitty video?" But in the end, when the video comes out cool, everyone's happier that way. I go in and make people re-edit the whole video, change the color correction, bring up a different filter, or all this other stuff. I have to time-code everything myself.
When it comes to videos, I think the song and video should be separate entities. The video should tell its own story and the song should tell its own story, but they should compliment each other, not dictate each other, and that's what I try to do. Julia was the first video I didn't completely direct myself…
Wait, you directed Babylon yourself?
Are you serious? That's so crazy!
Ahh, thank you! My father was in film for 30 years, so I've grown up around it and guess I've caught the bug! It's something that I'm really into, something that no one really knows but that I'm really interested in and enjoy.
What's it been like touring more with TDE? Has being with all boys taught you anything or changed the way you think?
Bring your own toilet paper! Bring your own toilet paper and bring your own baby wipes, and hide the baby wipes! Honestly it's just interesting. I'm not a girly girl per say, for the record, this dress I'm wearing was a gift I got yesterday and I ran out of clothes so I threw it on, but normally I'm not a dress wearer or anything like that. So I think it's just easier, they treat me like one of the homies. The only real difference is that I'm very sensitive and they're not like that at all.
Have you become less sensitive being around them?
Not at all, I've become like hypersensitive. I'm like hyper-empethetic, it's nuts. But I guess they've gotten me to the point that I'm so sensitive that I'm just so over everything.
Returning to childhood for a minute, I know it also influences your personal style to a degree as well. If you could go back in time and pluck one item from your childhood closet, what would it be and why?
This romper that my Mum got me as a child, that shit was boss! It was paisely and sort of looked like a bandana all over. Velvet on the bottom, velvet on the collar, it was raw. It was so raw!
What are some pieces in your closet with the best stories?
I thrift everything, even appliances. I found this one juicer on the street in Williamsburg for 20 bucks, which was the beginning of me changing my entire lifestyle, eating wise. Just this random juicer that I had to get on the street. I bring home so much random shit, so when I came home with that, my boyfriend was just like "what the fuck?" and I was like "I found it on the street and it was so cheap!" and he was like "it's probably diseased!" and all that shit. But I walked for like 5 hours when I bought that juicer, I went on with my day. Strolling around in the summer time, no bag, just rolling up everywhere with my juicer.
I know you're a fan of Fade to Mind, King Krule, Crystal Castles, and I heard you soundchecking Fleetwood Mac! If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would you chose and why?
I can't pick just one! Prince, I love King Krule, Sade would be nuts, Jamiroquai would be nuts, Bjork would be dream status. Like you could bury me after that, you could just bury me. I would quit music. That's the apex. I should stop there.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for successfully pioneering the way people see something or what they're introduced to, because I feel like a lot of that is separated by demographic or class and all that kind of shit. But I feel like there's a lot of blending of classes and space when it comes to me. Whether it's me wearing a dirty jersey in Vogue with no hair or makeup team or I'm doing a song with Jill Scott on HypeBeast and HypeTrack, in both circumstances, those worlds don't really go together. And I think that's kind of tight. I enjoy that, I want to keep doing that. I want to keep bringing things to people of colour that they're not used to, sounds that they're not used to. I want to be remembered for culture splicing, but successfully!
Text Emily Manning
Photography Zach Wolfe