When an artist thanks audience members for coming to a show, it’s pretty rare to actually feel the gratitude in every lyric. SZA—her full name is Solana Rowe—takes the stage and commands an air of intimacy from the get go. Just beginning to truly take flight, the Maplewood, New Jersey native never imagined her music career would progress so rapidly when she dropped her debut EP See SZA Run last year. The enterprising 23-year-old released her sophomore project S in early April and became the sole female artist on the roster of Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment label.
It’s no wonder the MC of the Year is drawn to SZA: She’s a paragon of originality, combining a marked tomboy style, with a softness to her sound that draws you in and leaves you wanting more.
Today she drops her video for “Ice Moon.” It’s a dreamy journey through a forest affixed with flowers and purple balloons. SZA balances an almost childlike playfulness with a commanding presence as she sings, “Show me the way to your hiding place.” We sat down with the young singer to discuss her relationship with Kendrick Lamar and TDE, her love for Lorde and the time she ran crying from the stage after bombing a performance. Suffice to say, she’s grown a lot since that show.
Watch the “Ice Moon” video above and get to know her below.
What does SZA (pronounced syz-uh) represent, what is the meaning behind that name?
It’s an acronym from the Supreme alphabet so the “S” represents “savior” or “sovereign,” the “Z” represents “zig-zag-zig,” which means knowledge and enlightenment of one’s self and A represents “Allah,” which is a higher power.
So, we gather your name has something to do with your personal background and beliefs?
Yeah, it’s a mix. It’s weird because all my friends had been pronouncing my name “Soza” and one day someone was struggling with the pronunciation and they were like “Are you soza, sza?” and I was just like “Uh, yeah!” So we just kept the SZA with that pronunciation and the crazy thing is that RZA’s name actually stands for “Ruler,” “Zig Zag Zig,” “Allah.” So, my name isn’t quite as dope but still cool.
For me, my name implies that some things must be kept personal and closely held. You just can’t throw certain things about yourself into the world or idly gossip.
No, we love the name. It has substance and meaning. We’re jumping ahead a bit but considering your strong personal beliefs do you ever find yourself in compromising situations as you traverse the music industry and if so, how do you handle it?
Well, that’s part of the reason I don’t broadcast my beliefs, it’s almost like a lifestyle. I’m sure I could always be more modest, not curse, etc., but I do. I try to be the best human being I can be while sticking to my traditional values. At the same time, I’m still a 23-year-old girl so there’s that.
It’s just balance and chilling out, in addition to the fact that my values are very much ingrained in me. Plus, working with TDE I don’t really have too many temptations around me. Kendrick is very focused.
TDE is well known for being very altruistic in their group philosophy, something that seems to complement your own beliefs, how has their influence affected you? Perhaps you could give a few tidbits on pre-TDE SZA and post-TDE SZA?
I would have to say that pre-TDE SZA was a little more scatter-brained. I was just kind of “winging it,” relying solely on raw talent and trying to do anything, rather than having a master plan. Post-TDE SZA is much more concentrated and focused because I have more space, trust and support in growing as an artist. I have greater access to producers I want to work with and unlimited studio time. It is forcing me to study more and dig deeper in my art. It’s like with all this help, if I fail it will be like, “What was all this for?”
You want to show people that they’ve done the right thing in trusting and investing in you as an artist. You want to remind people all the time [of why] they signed you. I just want to make TDE proud.
You’ve been vocal about your appreciation for the way the TDE team doesn’t baby or coddle you. What’s the back-and-forth like with them?
It’s true, you can tell the guys at TDE know I’m a little weird or odd and they don’t really know exactly who I remind them. But they can just sense it’s a good fit. They definitely trust my style and give me freedom, but it’s also like “Don’t mess up.”
Sometimes messing up brings to light really awesome discoveries. You put out two bodies of work, See SZA Run and S, in less than a year’s time. That effort has culminated in your signing to TDE and as compared to most artists you are on a pretty fast track. Do you ever find it overwhelming, how to negotiate all the expectations? Say you’re sitting in the studio with crazy writer’s block, what do you do to overcome those sorts of jarring situations?
I actually have those moments all the time, moments where I’m sitting there and I realize these expectations are way higher than before signing when I was comfortable winging it. That was the difference. My comfort level in winging it is just not the same. I put myself under such scrutiny that I just get terrified sometimes, almost paralyzed with fear.
But, it’s like being in school or playing a sport. You go to practice as often as possible and put as many odds in your favor as you can, even though you can’t predict the outcome. If you lay the proper groundwork then you can at least sway the odds in your favor.
Right on, a strong foundation is definitely necessary in pursuing longevity of art, life etc. So let’s talk a little bit about your artistic process, because with your upcoming album Z you have a lot more resources. For example, you worked with 16-year-old wunderkind producer, WondaGurl who produced the track “Crown” on Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. How does having access to more well-known producers in addition to greater resources affect your music?
I’m more into talent than notoriety. I just want people who can provide good music. Like Punch (TDE’s general manager) will play a bunch of beats and won’t tell me who the producers are. Then I get to just pick what I love and that makes it a very genuine process. Sometimes it’s complete unknowns and others are Wondagurl (laughs).
Did you and Wondagurl or the other producers you’re working with personally work together in the studio or did you guys go back and forth via email?
No, that’s the crazy thing. Like Emile Haynie, who produced Kid Cudi’s first album, will build the beats from scratch but some people just send them.
So, once you’ve chosen a particular beat, how do you proceed from there?
The decision process is very personal and individual. Like, you don’t really know a person until you’ve made music with them. Same with the boys of TDE, like getting to know them on a professional level. They listen to my music and on their own they’ll make their individual critiques. But in any collaborative situation you have to get to know that person musically.
What can listeners expect from Z? Is it a concept album? The only singles released thus far have been “Teen Spirit” and “Julia.”
This is loosely based on my childhood. There’s someone narrating it, but I won’t say whom, as like a shrink. I’m going through each song, through like certain moments in my childhood like certain films. A lot of it is cinema-based, like Disney or horror movies — movies that just changed the way I viewed certain things. The track “Julia” represents Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, which is one of my favorite movies.
I would say my favorite song on the album is “Child’s Play,” just because it’s very simplistic. I could play the song a thousand times and I never really listen to my music. I just really love it that it’s not too overdone.
Well, we are super excited to hear the album. We really enjoyed the track “Julia,” just because my personal preferences tend towards a more ambient sound. So this is a really exciting time for you, you opened for Little Dragon’s NYC shows at the Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg. How did that come about? Have you guys discussed a possible collaboration?
I have no idea, it was the most organic thing. Yukimi Nagano (Little Dragon’s vocalist and frontwoman) literally hit me on Twitter and said “Let’s tour.” And I said “Uhh, yeah!”
That is absurdly awesome. Little Dragon is one of our favorite bands, if you could even classify them as just a “band.” They seem like so much more than that. Well, aside from Little Dragon, who are some of your dream collaborations?
Lorde, Bjork, and Jamiroquai. I love Lorde—she’s amazing.
We think that every single one of those collaborations would produce dope, interesting music. Tell us about a really embarrassing moment for you onstage.
My first performance, at CMJ 2012 (College Music Journal’s annual Music Marathon) was awful. I did horrendously. I literally just ran crying from the room.
If you could do it over, what would you do?
I don’t think I would do anything over because that harsh moment totally changed me forever. It made me feel like I have to do better and just really motivated me. I tend to be motivated by negative things [in general].
I’m not sure what happened but there was like a release or something that has since then helped me work through my nerves. Like feeling placid and steady when I start. Before that moment I felt way more anxiety and I would think my way through the whole song, just like unable to relax. I think it’s also partly a breathing thing and partly a comfort level with my shows. I remember I meditated once before a show and did terribly. Now I’m usually angry before shows.