Tinashe’s career has been a tortuous road full of lessons about the music industry. But with her latest album, she may finally be on the right track. Read this story and more in the latest issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.
When I enter the space in Downtown Los Angeles that’s serving as the photo studio for a session with rising songstress, Tinashe, she is already being ushered by her glam squad from the matte black backdrop into the hallway to switch into another look.
Tinashe emerges minutes later in an all-black, leather ensemble that is finished off with a pair of matching black sunglasses. She takes her mark near studio ephemera that ranges from a neon “open” sign that you’d see outside of a corner bodega, and a painting of Tupac Shakur holding up his iconic “Westside” pose. As a total package, she looks like Jackie Brown meets Johnny Cash; sexy, confident and with an outlaw’s swagger. The photographer’s lights pop with each frame taken—creating a rhythm not unlike a hi-hat on a drum kit—that she uses as a prompt to effortlessly change poses.
She later admits that photo shoots still excite her, but the repetitiveness of doing interviews grates on her nerves. It’s certainly understandable after feeling that her comments were taken out of context in a June 2017 profile by The Guardian which insinuated that she believed that the music industry only allowed for a certain number of women of color on the top of the pop charts.
At only 24 years old and fresh faced—with auburn highlights peppering her curls—Tinashe is challenging for a top spot. Her Hollywood aspirations began when she was quite young after relocating to Los Angeles from Chicago with her college professor parents, Michael and Aimie. Even her grandparents were educators. Thus, there was already an established precedent for her to enter and excel in the world of academia. But there was never a thought of pursuing such a path.
“God no!” she states of the prospect. In the moment, it’s like asking an airline pilot to roll down the window. She wanted gold records, not golden rules.
Whereas this disinterest in a career in education may have created conflict in certain family dynamics, her parents have always been advocates of her quest to entertain—whether as a child model, actor or singer.
“I’ve always wanted to do music and entertain. They’ve always been supportive in everything since I was young,” she admits.
During middle school, Tinashe fed her acting bug with parts on Cartoon Network and CBS that often took her out of class for months on end. As kids that age tend to do, her peers channeled their jealously into anger and began bullying her. She went from a near straight-A student to becoming completely disenfranchised with her entire school existence. By the time she was in ninth grade, school and acting were both afterthoughts as she honed in on her love of music; opting to test out of high school to pursue her ultimate goal of landing a record deal.
In 2007, her dreams were no longer deferred when she was signed to Columbia Records as part of the all-girls group, The Stunners, alongside members Allie Gonino, Hayley Kiyoko, Marisol Esparza and Kelsey Sanders.
The brainchild of Colleen Fitzpatrick, who was perhaps better known to a music crowd as Vitamin C—a singer/songwriter who charted on Billboard in the late 1990s—she had already swung and missed with 2007’s ill-fated group, T-Squad, which came and went like chewed bubblegum.
However, the all-female dynamic with The Stunners struck a chord with audiences. They found instantaneous success that would only be intensified with their inclusion on Justin Bieber’s 2010 ‘My World Tour,’ which found the group playing arenas before they had managed to even conquer more intimate nightclub settings.
Although The Stunners increased her exposure, Tinashe doesn’t reflect fondly on her four years with the group—which mercifully ended for her in 2011. She found the very nature of how they were conceived, the songs that were written for them, and the overall direction as a creative prison.
“Being in a group, you just don’t really have any kind of creative freedoms or control,” she says.
Free of the confines of the group just as she was coming into adulthood, Tinashe was now free to explore the songwriting process where she could expand upon themes and topics that may have been viewed as provocative from a group who had shilled songs like “Santa Bring my Soldier Home” and “Spin the Bottle.”
Utilizing a self-starter mentality and tireless hustle, Tinashe turned to YouTube tutorials to begin to produce her own music so that nothing was left in the hands of anyone that could change her newfound direction.
“I like to be able to have the ability to produce my own music, record myself, mix my own vocals,” she says. “I think that’s definitely a huge tool for sure.”
The result was her 2012 independently released mixtape debut, In Case We Die, which was splashed with sensuality and moodiness and marked her official arrival as a solo artist. While Tinashe felt a sense of release and liberation, she also realized that she couldn’t hide behind other group members’ shortcomings or poor managerial decisions.
“As a solo artist, obviously that’s much more fulfilling to be able to create your own path, do your own thing, and be the boss of yourself,” she reasons. “But, there’s also a lot more pressure in that as well.” As the saying goes, “No pressure, no diamonds.”
Tinashe followed up her debut mixtape with her first official project, Aquarius, where she recorded over 200 songs over a two-year period, to finally get down to the final 18 tracks which drew comparisons to luminaries like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. Although she admits she doesn’t toil away behind the boards like she once did as an independent artist, she clearly has the spirit of a producer as she seeks out perfection.
“I think it’s important for me to be hands-on in all the creative aspects,” she says.
The subject of “process” is near and dear to Tinashe’s heart. She’s particularly passionate about the underrepresentation of females in every facet of the music business where male collaborators permeate the technical, creative and ownership sides of the industry.
“I only worked with two or three female engineers ever,” she recalls, which is a particularly alarming figure, considering she’s a self-proclaimed studio rat.
Her desire for inclusion is not merely reserved to issues relating to gender. She wants to empower all young people to get involved—especially in areas that may be unseen and unnoticed by the general public.
Although she’s since satiated her fans’ desires for more music with the release of her sophomore album, Nightride—which felt more like a pit stop than a destination—it’s her long gestating third project, Joyride, which has had everyone clamoring for a release since it was first teased in 2015. She asserts that Joyride isn’t collecting dust on a shelf. It’s also not serving as “exhibit A” in the court of public opinion to illustrate a feud with her record label. Rather, it’s simply a work in progress.
“I think sometimes you just have to step away, and take a break, and recharge yourself emotionally, and spiritually because the creative process isn’t something that you can force.”
“I think sometimes you just have to step away, and take a break, and recharge yourself emotionally, and spiritually because the creative process isn’t something that you can force,” she says. “Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it just comes to you instantly, sometimes songs take weeks, months or years for people to complete.”
There have been setbacks—most notably when Rihanna nabbed the title track “Joyride” for her own album, Anti—before ultimately relinquishing the song back to its rightful owner. Tinashe addressed subsequent album delays in a letter to her fans on Facebook dated April 5, 2016, stating “trust me, I am as eager to get it out to you as you are to hear it. I will be wrapping up the finishing touches on Joyride by the end of May.”
Over a year has passed since that announcement. Tinashe is aware that there is a difference between evolving as an artist and over-tinkering. She likens releasing the project to the bittersweet feeling of parents watching a child head off to their first day of school and feeling equal parts happiness as they do a sense of loss.
“You have to disconnect from it and obviously it’s very precious, because you listen to it obsessively and you’ve created this,” she says, adding, “sometimes that can be a daunting thing when a new project comes out, because it’s not your own anymore. It’s open to criticism, and everyone can shit on it.”
With years’ worth of recordings compiled for Joyride, she’s now forced to reckon with how the passage of time could potentially impact the project.
“Some songs can cut through for years, and months, and months, which are obviously awesome songs if they can do that,” she says.
These same songs which continue to make the final tracklist indicate to her that she’s not chasing any fleeting musical trends and is instead relying on instinct above all else. The actual album title, Joyride, is a reference to the emotional journey that Tinashe has taken in the industry where she equally notes the thrilling and fun moments as the instances that feel debilitating.
“It’s embracing all those things that make it an adventure,” she reasons.
Her voice radiates positivity, but the look on her face makes it abundantly clear that she is growing frustrated with not only the lack of an album, but also the inability to promote it and also interact with her passionate fan base.
“The most fulfilling thing to me is hearing feedback from people that my music meant something to them,” she admits. “So, when I see people that have been affected by my music, or my art, or anything that I’ve created, that’s where the value comes in.”
It’s sometimes hard for her to rationalize the rabid support she has; having amassed 2 million Instagram followers and another 707,000 on Twitter where she regularly retweets those she affectionately refers to as “SweeTees” who identify with her poignant lyrics and are entertained by her live shows. Clearly, there are plenty of Tinashe fans riding hard for her. As a fan growing up, she didn’t have artists that moved her to tears. But she always had the utmost respect for artists who could bring their albums to life in a concert setting.
“That’s why I love Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, or all these people that could really fucking just get up there and put on an amazing performance.”
“The people that I grew up loving the most were people that were amazing entertainers, and put on an amazing show,” she says. “That’s why I love Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, or all these people that could really fucking just get up there and put on an amazing performance.”
When people use Janet Jackson’s career as comparison to her own, she views it as a huge compliment because she believes people are interpreting her as a genre-less singer who is well-rounded.
“That’s always been the ultimate goal,” she says.
There comes a point in every long car ride when a driver has been on the road so long that everything starts to look the same. Even though they’re barreling down the highway at 80 miles per hour, they start questioning whether or not they’re making any progress.
Tinashe gives off the impression that she’s enjoying the wind in her hair, but she’s sick of all the bugs smashed against the windshield. She is trying to cultivate her own creativity while staying in the lane she’s chosen to navigate. Along the way, her pit stops include exerting more control over her videos, music, and other aspects of her artistry that can make her more like the entertainers she grew up adoring.
Ultimately, Joyride might not prove to be the destination everyone thinks it will be for her career. But perhaps even more importantly for Tinashe, it’s definitely not the end of the road. In the interim, she is keeping focused on what makes her happy.
“I’m just being creative, really focused on just making dope shit.”
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.